Vaccine vials and a virtual hug: a history of coronavirus in 15 objects

Posted by on February 21, 2021 9:00 am
Categories: Global Stories

How will we tell the story of Covid-19 to future generations, capturing all the fear, horror and hope? Around the world, museums have begun to answer that question

Museums all around the world are collecting Covid-related material. At one level, this is hardly surprising: this is a global transformative event and future generations will need to see what it did to us, how we tried to cope. But they should also be given praise for doing it at a time when they are all locked down. For most, the collecting process – usually an online callout for objects allied to more proactive spotting of themes and requesting of material – started in March or April last year at just the time museums were closing their doors and curators were taking to their laptops at home.

The example of how not to do it is the great flu pandemic of 1918-20, another global transformative event that killed tens of millions but does not figure much in museum collections. People were either too exhausted after four years of war or too traumatised by having another catastrophe to cope with to record it. “The collection I look after has over 150,000 objects covering many different areas,” says Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the Science Museum in London, “yet you could count the items relating to Spanish flu on one hand.”

The Science Museum and other institutions were determined to do better this time round, although this too has had its own challenges. McEnroe says she and her team haven’t been able to make the usual site visits to look for objects that scientists might take for granted but which, to a curator, are gold dust. She also worries about the ethics of bothering researchers at this critical moment. “Our address books are full of people who are experts in viruses,” she says, “but suddenly, no matter how important I think collecting Covid-related pieces is, developing a vaccine is an awful lot more important, and should I really be stopping them by ringing up and chatting?”

The items shown here have been collected by museums around the world. They range from high science to objects that show how ordinary people tried to tame the virus by representing it, and how they adapted their behaviour to help others. Many express the social solidarity people felt in the first phase of the pandemic in spring 2020 – a feeling of togetherness that is now fraying. It will eventually be the job of museums to show how our response to the virus, just like the virus itself, mutated over time. The clapping stopped; the rainbows in windows faded; we wanted to know when it would be our turn to have the vaccine.

Curators have barely begun to think about how to periodise the pandemic. We don’t even know yet how long it will continue or what form it will take in the future. For the moment, they continue to collect objects and document what they gather; the documentation will be crucial in giving historians and the general public context for the objects when they view them 50 years from now. Why were people wearing Black Lives Matter masks? How did Chinese communities respond to being attacked? Why did touch become so toxic, distance when you held a conversation so crucial? How did toilet rolls become symbols of panic buying? What was the obsession with crochet?

Should there be a central museum of Covid? Most of these institutions think not, though it may at some point be possible to gather together material from individual collections in one place online. The pandemic is proving to be a universal experience, but local and regional variations matter, and curators want their collections to reflect what is happening to people in their area. “Our aim is to document how people reacted to the crisis and what strategy they found to cope with daily life,” says Martina Nussbaumer, curator of cultural history and the history of everyday life at Vienna’s Wien Museum.

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