Respirator masks and gloves could be in museum exhibits about COVID-19 one day.
If you had to make a museum exhibit explaining the coronavirus pandemic to future generations, what would you put in it?
Curators and historians are trying to figure that out, even as the virus continues to spread and stay-at-home orders remain in effect.
Three Smithsonian museums in D.C. are launching coronavirus collection projects: the National Museum of American History; the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and the Anacostia Community Museum. Local library systems and historical societies are starting their own projects, too.
"We're thinking about test kits, ventilators," says Alexandra Lord, the chair of the American History Museum's medicine and science division. "But obviously those are objects we will not collect until the pandemic has really wound down. We don't want to put pressure on supplies."
Lord started thinking about a potential pandemic as far back as December, when reports about the coronavirus surfaced. She helped launch the museum's COVID-19 task force in March to put together a list of all the types of objects they want to collect.
One of her main interests is face masks, both industrial and homemade. "They tell stories," she says.
Collecting During A Crisis
It's a difficult time to start a new collection. Museums across the region are closed, and many institutions are simply struggling to stay afloat financially. Smithsonian employees are all working from home, which means there are no workers to process objects as they come in. Lord's main goal right now is to get the word out about their project and to urge people to hold onto potential artifacts.
"Many people throw away objects that we in the museum would be interested in," she says. Even an empty box that held personal protective equipment could tell future historians a lot about the current state of affairs. The museum is urging patrons to save everything from Zoom screenshots to shopping lists.
The Anacostia Community Museum is also holding off on requesting physical objects. Director Melanie Adams says they will eventually start collecting for a coronavirus exhibit being planned for next summer.
For now, though, she's focused on collecting stories. Next week, the museum will launch an oral history project called "Moments of Resilience." They'll ask Washingtonians to share stories of how they've come together during the crisis.
"We're inundated with numbers," Adams says. "But what really is missing in a lot of cases is that human story." Her curators will rely on oral histories to show the nuances of the pandemic, such as how black and Latino residents are being hit disproportionately hard.
"A lot of times with an artifact, unless it's blatant, it's a little hard to tell the inequality," Adams says. "And three, five, ten years from now, we really don't want the human impact of this story to get lost. And so that's what we're really trying to collect."
Local Collection Projects
It's not just major museums launching collection programs. Libraries and local historical societies are also getting in on the effort.
Arlington Public Library's Center for Local History is accepting physical submissions to its own COVID-19 archive project through its P.O. box — as long as the artifacts are no larger than 11-by-11 inches.
In its first week, they collected around 100 submissions: a handwritten grocery list; photos of people waiting in lines outside stores; a flier from Arlington Free Clinic detailing its coronavirus policies.
The library also launched Quaranzine, a weekly online collection of works by local artists responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Libraries today, they're more than just books and buildings," says Henrik Sundqvist, a communications officer with Arlington Public Library. "If it's collecting stories or providing free public wifi at some of our parking lots, the library is really a critical part of the social safety network."
The Historical Society of Washington DC is asking Washingtonians to document their experiences through videos, photographs, recordings and written journals for its "In Real Time" project.
While the project marks the first time the Historical Society has documented a current event as it happens, other museums and institutions have had some practice.
The American History Museum curators are modeling some of their efforts off their work documenting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And as Lord points out, this unfortunately isn't the first epidemic to hit the region or the country.
"We say this is an extraordinary time, but the truth is, the U.S. has dealt with epidemics and pandemics before," she says. "Going and looking at the objects that we have made available on our website can give people insight into what happened before."
Lord is looking forward to the day she can return to the museum and start sorting through physical objects. For now, however, she hopes people will think twice before throwing out their homemade face masks and the packaging for their Costco toilet paper rolls.
Who knows? They might end up in a museum.