Museums Are Urgently Collecting Homemade Masks and Other Ephemera From the Coronavirus Pandemic to Document History as It Unfolds
Curators call the practice "urgent response collecting."
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, non-essential businesses have shuttered and most people are forced to self-isolate at home. But as many of our minds are focused on how to fight the spread of disease, museums are thinking about how to best document this unique period in history and to preserve elements of the crisis as it unfolds.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a transformational moment for the world,” Mark Lubell, the executive director of New York’s International Center of Photography, told Artnet News in an email. “We have a responsibility to document it and share the truth of what’s happening.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, has formed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force that will “allow the museum to react quickly to assess and document the scientific and medical events, as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics, and culture,” read a statement from the museum.
“Archivists always feel the urgency of collecting materials related to specific events before they disappear, and making sure they are preserved and accessible for generations to come,” said Lindsay Turley, vice president of museum collections at Museum of the City of New York, in an email to Artnet News. “As soon as our government and health officials started issuing guidance and restrictions, the museum recognized this was a historic event for the city that we would need to document.”
Such responsive collecting has occurred in the wake of previous disasters including September 11 and Superstorm Sandy, as well as historic political events such as Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March. As a starting point for the current crisis, the Museum of the City of New York and the International Center of Photography are both utilizing Instagram. The two museums are soliciting photos of life in New York during the coronavirus lockdown under the respective hashtags #CovidStoriesNYC, launched April 1, and #ICPConcerned, which kicked off March 20.
For the ICP hashtag, which has already attracted more than 7,000 posts, “many of the first images were of masks and gloves, then empty streets and familiar things like subway cars looking very unfamiliar, with only one rider per car,” said Lubell. “Now, it is more about isolation and how people are managing this ‘new normal’ of being holed up in their homes. Other images capture springtime and nature that can be seen from a window or a short walk before heading back inside.”
Other museums, like the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, are thinking more about objects. Since 2014, the institution’s Rapid Response program has made 35 acquisitions related to current global and political events, including adding the pink pussy hat to its collection after the 2017 Women’s March.
“Rapid Response is about bringing objects into the museum that through their design articulate the bigger questions of contemporary society,” senior curator Corinna Gardner told Artnet News in an email. “It’s not as much a social history effort.”
The museum already has an eye on several medical products developed in response to the crisis, including a method to convert a snorkeling mask into a ventilator mask, designed by Isinnova, an Italian 3-D printing company, in conjunction with doctors at a local hospital.
“Our curatorial team is looking to the objects that reach beyond an idea and demonstrate an ability to generate impact and change, that have real traction in the field,” Gardner said.
At Orlando’s Orange County Regional History Center, which previously acquired objects related to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, curators have dubbed the term “urgent response collecting,” recognizing that the collecting objects tied to current events can take a long time, even if the process begins quickly.
“Urgent response collecting encourages historians to immediately begin considering the magnitude of the event at hand and to what extent it may bear historical importance in the future,” chief curator Pamela Schwartz told Artnet News in an email. “It allows museum, archives, and like institutions to capture stories, artifacts, and photographs before it is too late and important moments have been missed.”
In addition to collecting objects and photography, the museum is putting together an oral history about the pandemic’s effects in central Florida, for which it is conducting interviews by phone and Zoom. It is hosting a history-at-home webinar on April 17 for those who want to learn more about the project.
“Our staff is continuously on the watch as this pandemic grows and its impact morphs,” Schwartz added. “We are considering everything.”
But collecting in the time of coronavirus presents unique challenges. There are the logistics—with staff working from home, there is no one on site to physically accept submissions—as well as the general shortage of necessary personal protective equipment and other gear.
The Victoria and Albert Museum wants innovative medical equipment, said Gardner, but “we have to be mindful of whether we are taking something that is absolutely necessary out of circulation.”
Perhaps of greatest concern is the risk of contracting the virus from contaminated surfaces. “We have to make sure the health and safety of our staff comes first,” said Turley. “At this point, we don’t want anyone personally accepting anything that has been in the possession of someone not in their immediate household without more guidance from health officials.”
At the New-York Historical Society, “we are asking people to keep these objects where they are, until it’s safe for us to take them and preserve them,” president and CEO Louise Mirrer told Artnet News in an email.
The society just launched a new edition of its “History Responds” initiative, which dates back to the September 11 attacks, when staff picked debris off the street for the museum collection (a great deal of these holdings ultimately made their way to the city’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum). Its efforts aim to cover ever facet of the current crisis, from effects on local businesses and the medical response, to tales of illness and loss as well as creative projects that have grown out of isolation.
“We’re in the process of acquiring rainbow artwork by children and handmade masks once they’re no longer needed,” said Mirrer. “We’re on the lookout for an empty bottle of Corcraft, the hand sanitizer made by New York State prisoners. Other items on our wish list include thermometers,
The museum’s curator of photography is also working with street photographers to capture scenes of New York City life in this strange time, while the library is looking to archive paper signs announcing business closures and even those emailed notices announcing each and every business’s COVID-19 response.
“We are looking for objects that can help tell the story of how New Yorkers and people in the surrounding area are managing life and coping under these extraordinary circumstances,” said Mirrer.
The Museum of the City of New York is planning to print out a representative sampling of coronavirus documents being issued via email by the city on archival paper for its collection. The goal is to “represent the viewpoints and experiences of a broad swath of New Yorkers from all five boroughs (and visitors—there are a number of people stuck here due to travel restrictions),” said Turley.
“We want materials that document the experiences of those on the front lines: healthcare workers, first responders, our public transit force, those working in our essential businesses to keep the city functioning,” Turley added. “While it is difficult to consider, we will also want to think about materials that document the experiences of those who contract COVID.”
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