Museums all over the world are aware of the historic moment the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting. While our institutions are closed and staff are working from home or furloughed, museum professionals are thinking about what to collect that will tell the stories of this time. In some cases, the collecting has already begun.
One of the tricky things to figure out is how to collect the ephemeral signs of COVID-19, the things that will go away once the pandemic has settled. Masks, shields, test kits, and ventilators are artifacts that can fairly easily be added to a museum collection once they are no longer needed. But how do we capture the feeling of entering the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or flour aisles of our favorite grocery stores and finding the shelves empty? How will we collect the loud-speaker store announcements wherein customers are reminded of social distancing measures and the other actions the store is taking to keep its customers safe? Will the tape on store floors at check-outs remain after the pandemic, showing people where to stand in line so they remain 6 feet apart? How about the Plexiglas hastily erected at counters and check-outs? Will every counter at a public place feature a bottle of hand sanitizer forevermore?
In our communities, we are seeing signs of COVID-19 that are literal … signs of businesses that are closed for who knows how long, signs on proper hand-washing techniques, signs indicating drive-thru or take-out only at area restaurants. Samples of these temporary, physical signs are easy for museums to collect. What’s more difficult is gathering the feeling of community solidarity behind people putting paper hearts in their windows, a sign of love and hope. Or, the sense of humor people display regarding the situation – the masks placed on public statues or a restaurant sign that proclaims, “We don’t have the virus, just the Coronas!”. Even in the darkest times, the humor is always there, a great coping mechanism.
While the physical signs and artifacts collected by museums will remain to tell the story of the pandemic, it’s the emotional signs that often go missing, which is why it becomes easy to forget the hardships of a pandemic within a generation or so of its passing. “You had to be there” is how those who lived through past challenges try to explain their gravity to those who didn’t experience them. Indeed, we are all here now, all 8 billion of us on the planet, and the situation is presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for museums to preserve a representative sample of our physical and emotional history from COVID-19.