The Covid-19 pandemic continues to plague the world. It is a topical event. But it is also history. Since the start of 2020, when it became clear that the virus was going to change the world, American museums began collecting artefacts to tell future generations how the country experienced this disaster.
The Smithsonian Institute, for example, collected in March the ampoules of the first vaccines used against Covid-19. These are pieces, in this case, that tell the powerful story of how scientists developed the long-awaited vaccination against a virus that has killed more than 3 million people worldwide.
The Smithsonian, which operates 19 museums, has one of the largest collections of drugs in the world. Its curators therefore immediately understood that Covid-19 should integrate its collection – and in a leading position. In January 2020, even before health officials declared the coronavirus pandemic, the institute asked Americans to donate items showing how the virus had infected their routines.
“With these types of artifacts, we can better understand the past and have more empathy for what people went through,” says curator Alexandra Lord, one of the people behind the initiative. “So we can understand how we got to where we are.” The collection built around the pandemic is expected to include an exhibition on the history of medicine scheduled for 2022 at the Smithsonian museums.
In addition to blisters, this institute collected protective materials used by doctors and nurses across the country. These are objects, Lord says, that illustrate the harsh conditions in which these professionals worked, sometimes without the necessary equipment – and how they even needed to improvise.
Lord estimates that he has received more than 500 donation offers since asking the public to contribute with items from his pandemic daily life a year ago. The process of evaluating each item should however take mainly because the employees of the institution work from home.
The Smithsonian is just one of many other American museums dedicated to this endeavor. Mainly because, says the curator, no single institution would be able to tell this complex story on its own. There are also similar projects in other parts of the world, such as in European countries.
The New York Historical Association, for example, also has a strong program. One of the most donated items, says director Margi Hofer, are the masks people have learned to use. These are objects, she says, that capture the creativity of people who have created their own protection. The association also has photographs of the empty city, ghostly in social isolation. There is also material that records how companies have adapted to the pandemic – for example, the collection contains alcohol gel bottles produced by companies that made beverages.
It is not common for a museum to treat the history of the present with such intensity. In a way, the Covid-19 pandemic has cut down on time. The days pass with such exception that they seem to jump into the history books almost immediately. Hence the urgency to register them now.
Some museums, however, already have some experience. The New York Historical Association, for example, began collecting contemporary objects after the September 11 attacks. Efforts were also made to collect artifacts related to the anti-financial market protests in 2011 (Occupy Wall Street) and anti-racism protests (Black Lives Matter). But the Covid-19 pandemic has another dimension, says Hofer.
Part of the challenge right now is its longevity. Not only because the virus continues to plunder the world, but also because life has changed every month. While the original intention was to record what was routine under social isolation, the important thing now is to record the experience of vaccination.
These museums hope that after fulfilling their mission, they will avoid what happened with the Spanish Flu of 1918. At that time, there was little effort to bring together contemporary history. It was precisely this lack that led curator Tobi Voigt of Michigan’s Historic Center to collect Covid-19 items. “There are official documents from 1918, but we don’t know what everyday life was like,” he says. “Museums have changed a lot since then.”
One of the changes is that institutions like Voigt’s are now concerned with telling intersectional stories – taking into account diversity of race, gender, origin, etc. “We realized that much of what we have in the collection speaks of only one segment of the population: white males,” he says. With that in mind, the team of curators approached the various groups that live in Michigan to tell their stories.
In recent months, however, the number of people interested in donating artifacts has declined. Fewer people are isolated at home. In addition, the longevity of the pandemic has made the exceptional more commonplace. Voigt says he is now looking for ways to convince the public to participate in the project without stinging the wounds of those who have suffered so much this year – thus preventing victims from having to recount their suffering again.
The Ventura County Museum in California is another of many trying to trace the history of this pandemic. According to Deya Terrafranca, director of the local library, around fifty people have already made donations. They told their stories, delivered works of art and photographs, for example.
“We want to understand how people’s lives have changed,” he says. “The government will have all the statistics, we will know how many people have been infected and how many have died. But how do you know what people were doing at home? How have simple things like a shopping list changed? “
Collecting these items should be fast. Time, flattened, mixes past and present. But museums have an advantage journalists don’t, Lord said of the Smithsonian. “Journalists need to cover the story as it goes. We can cheat. We can take a step back and think, assess what is really important. By looking at these objects in two or three years, we will better understand what was going on.