The Smithsonian Is Collecting Coronavirus 'Artifacts' To Document The Pandemic

May 23, 2020
Originally published on May 23, 2020 6:18 am

If you were designing a museum exhibit that would explain the coronavirus pandemic to future generations, what would you put in it?

Smithsonian curators in Washington, D.C., are trying to answer that question, even as the virus continues to spread in some states. The National Museum of American History and the Anacostia Community Museum have recently launched coronavirus collection projects. A third effort from the National Museum of African American History and Culture will kick off in June.

Each collection will have its own particular focus. The American History Museum is taking a broad approach: Curators on its COVID-19 task force are putting together lists of objects they want to collect, ranging from handwritten grocery lists and letters from patients to personal protective equipment, test kits and ventilators. Some of the objects will be put on display in an exhibit on disease planned for late next year.

"Obviously those are objects we will not collect until the pandemic has really wound down," said Alexandra Lord, the chair of the American History Museum's medicine and science division. "We don't want to put pressure on supplies."

Object collection is on hold for another reason: The District of Columbia's stay-at-home order is still in effect and the Smithsonian museums and offices are all closed.

"There's a whole set of protocol around artifacts that we can't follow right now," Lord said.

In the meantime, Smithsonian curators are soliciting digital items and oral histories for their online collections.

"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," says Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, which explores local social change. People in the Washington region can submit digital photographs, videos and written accounts to the museum's new "Moments of Resilience" online collection.

Adams' team will eventually start collecting objects for an exhibit planned for next summer. They'll pay particular attention to the pandemic's impact on the Washington region's restaurant industry and on black and Latino residents.

Curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture plan to collect objects that tell the stories of black Americans during the pandemic. For the pilot program, they'll ask residents of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver and New Orleans to upload oral histories, images and short videos to an online platform. Object collection will come later, once curators are back in their offices.

"It's important to make sure that those stories from African Americans are included in the record," said Dwandalyn R. Reece, the museum's associate director for curatorial affairs. She said the museum is modelling its current efforts off its work collecting artifacts during the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014, prior to the museum opening to the public.

Even though object collection can't start yet, the Smithsonian curators are hustling to get the word out about their various projects to keep people from throwing away would-be artifacts. Even a homemade face mask or an empty box that held a shipment of toilet paper could tell future historians a lot about the current moment.

Today's junk, tomorrow's artifact.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.