How future generations will remember the coronavirus pandemic

Museums worldwide are shaping how we remember life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Written/produced by Mallory Gafas. Cyril Vanier reports.

Posted: Jun 12, 2020 5:41 AM
Updated: Jun 12, 2020 5:41 AM

A window conversation between generations forced to stay apart. Once-bustling city streets sitting deserted. A grocery shopper dressed in a makeshift hazmat suit. A healthcare worker clearly exhausted from the frontlines.

These are some of the images that capture a pivotal time in history, as museums and cultural institutions around the globe work to document the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's really important future generations are able to look back and see what all had to happen for us to be safe," said Ellen Harrison, Head of Creative Programmes and Campaigns at Historic England. "And (exhibits about coronavirus are) a really useful way of processing some of the really difficult feelings and frustrations that we all experience."

In late April, Historic England -- which archives English heritage by documenting archeology, building, and social history -- began collecting photos for its "Picturing Lockdown Collection." It marked the public body's first call for public submissions since World War II. After one week, they received nearly three thousand entries from around the country, illustrating a diverse collective experience.

"We've seen a lot of rainbows -- that's become a symbol in the UK of a kind of a solidarity within this time," Harrison said of the submissions. "We've seen a lot of examples of people coming out to clap for carers ... we've also seen the struggles and the frustration that people are facing with having children indoors all the time...And we've had some really lovely images of people communicating to their elderly relatives on the phone (and) through windows as well."

Historic England selected 200 of the submissions for its archive, including 100 from the public, 50 from contemporary artists, and the remainder from the museum's photographers.

"One couple recreated the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Bed-Ins, but it has 'stay home' messages behind it," Harrison said. "So it's really good to see that even in the face of this adversity, people are keeping their sense of humor."

Elsewhere, curators focus not only on visual display, but physical artifacts iconic of an unprecedented time.

Austria's Wien museum began their "Corona in Vienna" project by asking the public for "photos of things that exemplify your new private or professional life in the times of Corona."

Submissions include signs and posters, homemade artwork, barriers to enforce social distancing, and more.

In the US, the New York Historical Society is also focusing on objects with its "History Responds" initiative. The collection began in March, launching with the acquisition of a single bottle of hand sanitizer.

"Certainly, a recurring object is face masks, they have become a powerful visual symbol of the crisis," said Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director at the NY Historical Society.

"Over the course of the past two months, the meaning of face masks has shifted. At first, people were advised not to wear face masks in public and now they're required, so I think they are symbolic in way of the confusion around the guidelines of public health. They've also become a political statement as well; whether you wear one or not can signal how you feel about the government's efforts to reopen."

Hofer said another common theme is businesses pivoting their production to better serve public needs. One example is a Brooklyn distillery which usually makes whiskey now manufacturing hand sanitizer.

The NY Historical Society embraces gathering artifacts as a crisis unfolds -- they call the act "rapid-response collecting." Creation of the coronavirus collection builds off of the NY Historical Society's experience from a previous event: The September 11th terrorist attacks.

"Just two days after the attack, our then-president enlisted people to go out and start collecting - the evidence of that moment would quickly disappear if we didn't act fast," Hofer says. "Time was of the essence before the missing signs, the distinctive dust and debris, the wreckage...was gone."

Similar to their 9/11 collection, the coronavirus collection includes materials, images, and stories gathered at the height of a difficult time. Hofer said she hopes that the collection may one day serve as instructive evidence for future generations.

"Look at how we are going back to the flu pandemic of 1918 for lessons learned from that experience," Hofer said.

"We look at the public health measures and the government interventions that were taken or not taken for guidance on what might be the right thing to do now."

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