What Should History Museums Collect During This Pandemic?

Masks

We have already encouraged you to record your coronavirus experiences. Today, our librarian at Messiah College asked us to consider having our students write something about how they are experiencing this pandemic in the hopes that we can deposit some of their reflections in the college archives. I have decided that I will ask students in my Created and Called for Community class–a course that deals with human dignity, creativity, community (national and Christian), and vocation–to write a final exam applying these ideas and values to our current moment.

The New York Historical Society is also thinking about how to remember this moment.  Here is a taste of a staff blog post titled “History Responds: Collecting During the COVID-19 Pandemic“:

What can history museums do during an epidemic? Like many institutions across the globe, the New-York Historical Society is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. And like so many New Yorkers, our curators and librarians are preoccupied with concern for their loved ones and grief over what’s happening in our beloved city.

But behind the scenes, they’re also doing what comes naturally to them: thinking about history. Since 2001 and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New-York Historical has run a program called History Responds. Its main goal is to collect objects, photographs, and ephemera from the present day for use as research sources and in future exhibitions—in essence, preserving history as it’s happening. We’ve collected from events like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2017 Women’s Marches. And as best we can, we’re collecting now.

We caught up with Rebecca Klassen, associate curator for material culture, who works on our History Responds initiative and joined us for an email exchange about what’s happening with the program. Among other things, she writes about what it’s like trying to collect objects in a time when touching things is risky and what kind of stories New-York Historical wants to be able to tell in future decades. Read on for more. —Kerrie Mitchell, content editor

Hello Rebecca! First off, can you give us a sense of how History Responds came about in the first place and how different this was from the usual tradition of collecting?

Well, New-York Historical has long collected documents, artifacts, and art reflecting contemporary events and trends. For instance, staff have regularly sought items connected to political campaigns and celebratory events in the city. As a designated initiative, History Responds took shape in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, when our president at the time, Kenneth T. Jackson, called upon staff to intensively collect around the attacks and the city’s response. This became a massive collection of objects ranging from architectural debris to clothing to letters to items left behind as memorials—some of it was given to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, while a core remains in our collection.

Read the rest here.