The artifacts of a dangerous time
As the pandemic continues and lives are lost, museum curators across the country are scrambling to collect objects to enlighten future generations — everything from scarves to shoes
Maureen Peters, curator of history at The Rooms, the provincial museum for Newfoundland and Labrador, already has her first COVID-19 artifact.
“Six feet apart or six feet under, your choice,” the block-letter poster reads.
Peters says the sign will be a critical artifact for Newfoundlanders 100 years from now because “we’re close-talkers and this poster is going to mark a time in history when there’s a real switch in how we physically interact with people.”
Hundreds are visible around St. John’s, thanks to local hotel owner Marcel Etheridge, who felt that a blunt statement was needed to drive home the need for social distancing. He says he simply put “a new twist” on an old slogan. He printed1,500 posters and he’s had so many requests from small businesses, shelters and even the local police station that he will be printing another thousand.
Under normal conditions, the sign would be stored in the museum’s vault or in the environmentally controlled conservation lab. But for now it’s in Peters’ living room while she works from her kitchen table trying to anticipate the objects the museum will need to tell the story of this pandemic for generations to come.
Canadian museums are trying figure out how to document the COVID-19 pandemic even while it’s still happening.
Peters is one of many curators working from home, scrambling to map out a strategy to ensure she doesn’t miss out on opportunities to collect objects that will explain this historic moment to future museum visitors.
“It’s not easy,” says Jean-Marc Blais, director general of the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. “All of a sudden we are in this moment that has a beginning, but we don’t know when the end will be.”
Time provides historical perspective to better understand what objects reflect a historic event. Museums trying to document COVID-19 don’t have that luxury, he says.
Some museums feel they have to react quickly or important artifacts might disappear. “You run the risk of missing out,” says Peters.
Gail Lord, president of Lord Cultural Resources, a museum consulting company based in Toronto, says the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for “museums to connect to people and participate in the present moment, something museums need to do more of.”
It’s a challenge several museums are tackling by using “rapid-response collecting,” an emerging trend in North America and Europe that has museums collecting contemporary objects related to current events.
Peters says the poster is an iconic artifact for a museum dedicated to telling the story of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her own family history in the province dates back at least 300 years, and she says that having to physically distance when talking is a real change for Newfoundland culture. “The poster is a symbol of how that shift of separation is going to start.”
As soon as Peters heard about the posters, she phoned Etheridge from her kitchen and asked him to put one aside for her. One morning, while she was driving her brother to his essential-service job at the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation, where he makes hand sanitizer — also to be collected for the museum — Peters dropped by the Captain’s Quarters, the hotel Etheridge owns. He had left a stack of posters inside the hotel’s front door for her, “so I felt OK to go in and just grab one of those because I wasn’t going to be in touch with anybody.”
Viviane Gosselin, director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Vancouver, says staff are focused on rapid response. In 2019, they acquired — and then exhibited in February of this year — six of the 40-foot banners created for the July 2018 aerial blockade organized by Greenpeace against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in British Columbia.
When Gosselin heard there was to be an online presale of the much-coveted shoe created by Vancouver designer John Fluevog in honour of Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, museum staff were ready.
“It’s like buying a ticket for a hot concert,” says Gosselin. “The shoe is important because it’s a Vancouver response to the pandemic, but it’s also about how these women are the number one public health officers in each province, and they’re the generals and they’re heroes.” Though the museum hasn’t actually acquired the shoes yet — the online presale was so popular the website crashed — Gosselin says Fluevog has promised her a pair in August once the shoes are ready for shipment.
Julia Petrov, curator of daily life and leisure at the Royal Alberta Museum, says museum staff there are used to collecting artifacts at events as they happen, having “scavenged” pink pussy hats from the Edmonton’s Women’s March in 2017 and protest banners from the march for climate change in 2019. For COVID-19, Petrov wants to collect the personal protective equipment made by Alberta businesses and “anything else that helps people connect to this historic experience.”
At the City of Toronto’s museums and heritage services department, chief curator Wayne Reeves has already reached out to Daniel Rotsztain, creator of the two-metre-radius circular pipe known as the “social distancing machine.” Well known in urban planning circles, it demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining physical distance on Toronto’s streets. Rotsztain, an urban geographer, donned his hooplike contraption, fastened to his body with a series of harnesses, and careered around town, bumping into things to show the challenges of doing everyday errands.
At the Museum of Canadian History, Blais says curators will focus on artifacts that reflect the “huge change the pandemic is causing socially, politically and economically.”
Curators are “watching the evolution of the situation closely and considering the types of material culture that could be acquired,” he says. “At this stage we’re considering what is referred to as ‘raw’ material,” which will be reassessed in the future “to determine what is worth keeping for future generations.”
While museums focus on three-dimensional objects, curators say the stories behind the objects are just as important. The story can give an object an added significance that makes it more important for a museum to collect, says Gosselin.
AFacebook post tipped Gosselin to the story of PhD student Denise Fong, who is making face masks out of scraps of fabric and offering them to friends’ parents and grandparents. Fong is now being flooded with requests from seniors living in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Gosselin asked Fong to set aside some masks for the museum because “they speak to people wanting to protect themselves and others, and the really caring gesture that Denise made.”
Peters is looking for artifacts that tell the story of Newfoundlanders’ ability to mix resilience with humour. She intends to collect a cross-stitch by embroidery artist Jaimie Feener that reflects advice Health Minister John Haggie gave to parents who take their kids shopping during the pandemic: “Please don’t let them lick the handle of the shopping cart.”
Feener says it’s “overwhelming and surprising” that her cross-stitch has become a sought-after museum artifact. “It’s a really big deal to think I could be going to the museum some day with my family and seeing it.”
Peters is also working with Dale Jarvis, provincial folklorist for Newfoundland and Labrador, to gather testimonials.
Jarvis wants the stories of home-care workers “who are really seeing this pandemic from a different perspective than those of us who are safely at home in quarantine.”
He hopes to build “a database of stories and memories about what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and then that database becomes more than just a historical record,” he says. “It becomes something that might be useful to people in the future if they are confronted with a similar situation.”
Even the scarves worn by Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, have an important story to tell, says Reeves, who hopes to acquire the very first scarf de Villa wore to a COVID-19 press conference. “It underscores the personality that she brings to a very serious situation and the front she conveys to the public on a daily basis.”
While curators feel pressure to document the pandemic as people are responding to it, Gosselin says she is careful to balance compassion with the museum’s collecting mandate. “It’s our job to document the highs and the lows and the struggles of Vancouver, but we have to be tactful because everyone is struggling.”