Building a picture of the pandemic: Smithsonian curators capture Covid-19 in real time

A mask wearer in Union Square, New York, last June. Photographer Francesca Magnani observes that masks have come to assume “multiple functions” beyond basic health protection
© Francesca Magnani; courtesy of the National Museum of American History

“Right now the ground is moving, and we don’t have the answers,” reflects the artist Mark Bradford in a Zoom recording captured as part of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s new Pandemic Project—a collection of 85 interviews with artists and arts workers about their experiences of, and reflections on, 2020 in America. The statement underlines the challenges faced by museum professionals who are capturing recordings such as Bradford’s and deciding which objects and stories should be preserved to represent the prolonged and multifaceted crisis that has unfolded over this past year.The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted museums around the world to engage in rapid-response collecting—or “contemporary collecting”, as it is also known. The quick acquisition of oral histories, ephemera and materials relating to recent events is a practice that comes with ethical considerations: how can institutions move fast while also ensuring that an adequate diversity of voices make it into their collections, and that personal details and difficult experiences are approached with due sensitivity?  

You don’t want to be exploiting trauma… These are people’s real lives. We talk a lot about that as we’re designing the interviews
Ben Gillespie, Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral historian

For many of those involved in these efforts, this is new—and sometimes tricky—terrain. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art has been conducting lengthy interviews with members of the art world since the 1960s, but these are typically in-person recordings captured over a number of days and broad in scope, rather than the rapid-fire Zoom recordings focused on the continuing events of 2020, which the institution has been working on since the early days of the pandemic. “You don’t want to be exploiting trauma,” says Ben Gillespie, the archives’ oral historian, who conducted many of the interviews. “This isn’t a spectacle. These are people’s real lives. We talk a lot about that as we’re designing the interviews. For any good oral history practice, the narrator approves the story.” To that end, interviewees are given the opportunity to revisit their interviews and make tweaks or request a complete do-over.At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), Lexi Lord, who oversees one of the world’s major collections documenting the history of medicine, is among those involved in the museum’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think what’s hard with this pandemic is that we’re dealing with death, so how do we collect around that? Do we collect around undertakers, funeral parlours, morgues, or do we not do that because it’s deeply personal?”For guidance, she has looked to the emblematic objects from past pandemics and crises in the existing collection, as well as its glaring omissions. Among what she calls the “iconic absences” are any objects relating to the 1918 pandemic in the United States. “Everyone thinks we have tons of masks but we don’t,” she says. Back then, “people didn’t think about telling stories of ordinary people in the same way that we do today”.Now, the lowest hanging fruit for any Covid collection is masks—the National Museum of the American Indian has already added nine masks made by artists in Native American and indigenous Mexican communities to its collection—and an emphasis on individual experiences runs through all aspects of documenting current events and recent history.

A man in gloves and face mask checks his phone in Orson Oblowitz’s photo On the Go, Los Angeles, CA
Orson Oblowitz, Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

To record a human angle on the country’s historic sprint to develop Covid-19 vaccines and medications, for example, the NMAH has engaged a scholar to track the diversity of participants in clinical trials. That person will be embedded in the institution for one year and tasked with thinking about collecting around that subject. Among the objects Lord imagines they might acquire are photographs or diaries recorded by participants in trials, as well as souvenirs and drug company merchandise. “I don’t know if this is an American thing,” Lord says, “but the drug companies give gift bags.”There is also the matter of how to capture the culture wars surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. “There are the anti-vaxxers,” she notes. “That’s a difficult story for us to collect. We don’t want to endorse the views of these individuals, and yet that is an important part of what’s happening. We have to understand the individuals who reject the objects in our collection—the medication, the vaccines.” Building an inclusive picture of 2020To ensure the Smithsonian is documenting the most inclusive picture of 2020, several of its museums came together to host a 24-hour digital push to crowdsource stories and perspectives. Launched on 11 December, it included virtual events and offered various prompts and questions, one authored by each institution, that visitors to the web page could respond to. For example, what message would you send to the future about your life in these changing times? What stories, traditions, or celebrations have you and your family started, continued or reflected on this year? One of the event’s organisers, Bill Pretzer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says that combining efforts with other branches of the Smithsonian allows each of them to broaden their reach and provide the public with multiple angles and entry points into the past year. Pretzer’s goal is for his institution to be a trusted venue for Black Americans to offer up stories and objects that relate to their experiences of a challenging period in history—to “be the place where African American individuals and families and communities can be sure they’re going to be heard. That their stories are worthwhile.”“There is a long-standing biblical phrase in Black communities: making a way out of no way,” Pretzer continues. “How, when facing dire circumstances, do you make a life and continue on with your life? We want to give people the opportunity to think about how they have maintained their family life in this very difficult circumstance.”Many of the curators and arts workers know themselves what it means to continue on in the face of tremendous stress and grief. For Lord, therein lies an additional question for the museum’s Covid collection: should the museum community’s own experiences be part of it? “We ourselves, the curators, are in this story,” she says. “Curators have lost family members to Covid-19. We too are a community, and we too have been impacted.”


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