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If you were designing a museum exhibit to try to tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic, what would you put in it? It's a question the curators from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., are contending with now, as Mikaela Lefrak of member station WAMU reports.
MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: Face masks, store signage, handwritten grocery lists - these everyday objects could end up in a Smithsonian exhibit.
ALEXANDRA LORD: We've looked at even drawings that patients are doing, PPE, test kits, ventilators.
LEFRAK: Alexandra Lord is the chair of the medical and science division at the Smithsonian American History Museum. She's part of the museum's COVID-19 task force, a collection of curators deciding what they need to document the pandemic for future historians and visitors.
LORD: Many people throw away objects that we in the museum would be interested in.
LEFRAK: Plus, Washington's stay-at-home order is still in effect, and all the museums and offices are closed. So for now, Lord and her colleagues are just making lists. Other museums are using the opportunity to solicit digital items and oral histories. Melanie Adams is the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, which explores local social change.
MELANIE ADAMS: Three, five, 10 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.
LEFRAK: Her museum just launched an online collection called Moments of Resilience. People in the D.C. region can submit digital photographs, videos and written materials. Oral histories will help the museum tell certain stories, like how the region's black and Latino populations have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus.
ADAMS: The stories are really what's going to be able to tell the inequality because a lot of times with an artifact, unless it's blatant, it's a little hard to tell the inequality.
LEFRAK: Then there's the newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Curators there have experience documenting a major social event as it happens. They collected materials during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 before the museum opened. Dwandalyn Reece is the museum's associate director for curatorial affairs.
DWANDALYN REECE: It's important to make sure that those stories from African Americans are included in the record. You think about church services - how has the whole nature of the service changed?
LEFRAK: For their project's pilot program, they're asking residents of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver and New Orleans to upload oral histories, photos and videos to an online platform.
REECE: A particular interest of mine, and it's a little difficult to collect, is how we have engaged digital means to maintain community.
LEFRAK: That can mean anything from Zoom screenshots to selfie videos. Like at the other Smithsonians, collecting ventilators, masks and other physical objects will come later once supplies become more available. Alexandra Lord with the American History Museum says, for now, it's important for people to hold onto things that could gain significance with time.
LORD: It might even be an empty box that held masks that tells you a great deal about the shortages that we're facing
LEFRAK: She says your homemade face mask could become a Smithsonian artifact.
For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.
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