Toronto Star

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

- KAREN BLACK

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.”

 ?? CHRIS YOUNG THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Toronto’s chief cu­ra­tor, Wayne Reeves, hopes to ac­quire the first scarf worn at a press con­fer­ence by Toronto’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa. “It un­der­scores the per­son­al­ity that she brings to a very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion.”
CHRIS YOUNG THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO Toronto’s chief cu­ra­tor, Wayne Reeves, hopes to ac­quire the first scarf worn at a press con­fer­ence by Toronto’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa. “It un­der­scores the per­son­al­ity that she brings to a very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion.”
 ?? THE MU­SEUM OF VAN­COU­VER ?? Vi­viane Gos­selin, di­rec­tor of col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of Van­cou­ver, says rapid re­sponse is top-of-mind for mu­seum staff there, who were all over an on­line pre-sale of the much-cov­eted shoe cre­ated by Van­cou­ver de­signer John Fluevog in hon­our of Dr. Bon­nie Henry, Bri­tish Columbia’s pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cer.
THE MU­SEUM OF VAN­COU­VER Vi­viane Gos­selin, di­rec­tor of col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of Van­cou­ver, says rapid re­sponse is top-of-mind for mu­seum staff there, who were all over an on­line pre-sale of the much-cov­eted shoe cre­ated by Van­cou­ver de­signer John Fluevog in hon­our of Dr. Bon­nie Henry, Bri­tish Columbia’s pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cer.
 ?? THE ROOMS ?? For The Rooms cu­ra­tor Mau­reen Peters, New­found­lan­ders’ abil­ity to mix re­silience with hu­mour in the face of cri­sis is key to the story. She in­tends to col­lect a cross-stitch by em­broi­dery artist Jaimie Feener.
THE ROOMS For The Rooms cu­ra­tor Mau­reen Peters, New­found­lan­ders’ abil­ity to mix re­silience with hu­mour in the face of cri­sis is key to the story. She in­tends to col­lect a cross-stitch by em­broi­dery artist Jaimie Feener.

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