How Will We Remember the Pandemic? Museums Are Already Beginning to Decide

LOS ANGELES — Six-year-old Franklin Wong captured the easy frustration of being a scholar on this metropolis’s Unified School District in mid-March, after his lessons have been canceled. He wrote in huge blocky letters: “I did not go anywhere,” and added an sad face in inexperienced and pink crayon for his remote-learning project.

This could also be the first time a primary grader’s homework is headed to a everlasting museum assortment as an alternative of a mother or father’s fridge door, a novelty that underscores how far into uncharted waters curators are crusing.

The Autry Museum of the American West, which just lately acquired Franklin’s diary, is amongst the rising contingent of museums, tutorial establishments and historic societies from right here to Bozeman, Mont., and Washington, D.C., which have begun recording this second of collective uncertainty in the nation’s conflict towards the coronavirus.

“Museums have a responsibility to meet history head on,” stated Tyree Boyd-Pates, 31, affiliate curator at the Autry, whose objective is accumulating moments of shared expertise as “a chance to record how the West navigated this epidemic.”

Jake Sheiner, 33, a restaurant server in Glendale, Calif., who has been out of labor since mid-March, has painted 22 quarantine scenes of life inside his condominium, donating his work to the University of Southern California Libraries. In New York, Mitchell Hartman, a retired commercial photographer, has been walking the streets snapping photos of his native Queens, sharing images with the Museum of the City of New York.

Museums are not just seeking artists’ works but everyone’s memories — the more personal, the better — in an effort that recalls the repositories of first-person testimony, along with material evidence and historical records, gathered by cultural institutions after Sept. 11. But some scholars and historians point to today’s challenges of depicting an event authentically and from many angles when there is still no end in sight to the pandemic. And, they ask, when everything is an artifact, what is truly historically important — and just whose Covid stories are being told in these archives, and whose are not?

The Autry, for its part, is gathering recipes, personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), face masks with Native American motifs, and oral histories for its new project, “Collecting Community History: The West During Covid-19.”

Among the roughly 160 items gathered since April are an illustrated journal from Tanya Gibb, a resident of Gardena, Calif., who was taken to an emergency room three times this spring before being hospitalized for a high fever days before her 37th birthday. Ms. Gibbs was suspected of having the virus but never tested during two earlier visits because she had not traveled abroad or been directly exposed. This disruption and confusion in her life — after two months she is finally getting back her sense of taste and smell, she said — mirrors a common frustration for many Americans, Mr. Boyd-Pates said.

“It’s about clarifying this moment in history that is so bewildering and confusing and doing that by sourcing face masks, journal entries and home recipes from our communities,” he added.

The curator pointed out that “capturing her voice as well as the materials” in his museum’s collection, demonstrates “how relationships exist within a pandemic.”

Ms. Pulskamp, who read about the Autry project on Facebook, teaches native workshops across the state. She’s lost work, but she hasn’t quit working. Yards of fabric and pounds of beads in her home are the weapons in this Rosie the Riveter war machine.

Now one of her beribboned powwow masks, a dress and a necklace will be auctioned for the University of California, Los Angeles American Indian Alumni Association’s scholarship fund. There’s the strange contradiction in finding pain repurposed into joy, she says.

Organizers had a decade after Sept. 11 to assemble multiple views of history that would be examined in repositories culminating in the National September 11 Memorial Museum at ground zero — and even longer to put together the many Holocaust Museums scattered across the globe.

David Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” says Covid-themed museums and collections are a good idea. But he adds, “it depends on how it’s done.”

“A successful museum of this kind should provide context and enable future visitors to understand the tenor and temper of the times, including inequities, racial and otherwise,” Mr. Kennedy said.

In the cases of Holocaust and September 11 museums, personal items represented the memories and traumas of everyday people. As institutions rush to bear witness to the pandemic, some historians ask, will they serve us all and account for the deep divides this virus has tapped?

“Museums are places where we convene to make sense of our shared human experience,” said Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Still, the burden, pain and grief of this pandemic are not being experienced in the same way across the nation’s many communities.”

Covid-19 has exposed a vein of bigotry toward Asian-Americans. It has been particularly virulent toward African-Americans and Latinos. Ms. Jones suggests that localized museums, like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit or the Baltimore Museum of Art, could better speak to some of these issues and perhaps create new narratives rather than echo a singular one. She points to the cellphone videos of what she called “the overpolicing” of people wearing face masks incorrectly, or not wearing them at all, as evidence that should also be collected for museumgoers of the future.

Brenda Stevenson, a professor of African-American studies at U.C.L.A., suggests that museums also display “oral accounts, TikTok shorts, newspaper accounts, hospital and emergency medical workers’ testimony, and data from Johns Hopkins and the C.D.C.”

Collections should include hospital beds, and even unemployment records and conspiracy theories, she added, which all help “better understand this event and explain it to future audiences.”

In New York, over 4,000 photos of daily life have been shared by citizens with the Museum of the City of New York’s #CovidStoriesNYC, a social media platform organized by Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photography.

Mr. Corcoran said that as the crisis continues “we’re debating what types of materials we’ll bring into our collection.”

He noted that when the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn switched to making a hand sanitizer, he kept a bottle as an artifact of “how local businesses are changing to deal with the crisis.”

But Mr. Kennedy warns that curators sifting the tea leaves could invite nostalgia and exploitation; the goal is “engaging the public but informing them — and not just tickling their fancy.” The New-York Historical Society, he noted, “has taken on subjects like Japanese internment in really exploratory ways, not just memorializing victimization.”

He wishes there had been cultural institutions focused on studying the 1918 Spanish flu or the bubonic plague of the 14th century, leaving historians and scientists to “scratch our heads and ask why we didn’t know more,” he said. “Any serious studying of the past has to be aware of not waiting too long,” he added. “You want to figure out what happened and why.”

“We’re careful not to take things people still need,” Mr. Filene said, “but eventually we’re going to want medical tools and P.P.E.s that have become symbols of class and racial inequities. The testing kit is a medical tool, but it’s become a political flash point and economic need, so that’s something we’ll want.”

While the Smithsonian hasn’t collected anything yet, its curators are contacting protesters, Walmart employees and food processing workers, Mr. Filene said, for different points of view. There’s also a plan for all 12 Smithsonian museums to gather digital submissions.

“We’re taking the long view,” Mr. Filene said. “We realize more than ever even when we open the building, this crisis is not going to be over. It’s obvious we’re living through a historic moment.”

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