Not long after the big 2018 earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska, the employees at the Anchorage Museum had a meeting. Director Julie Decker told her staff to keep their eyes open: That moment in time was important to the history of Alaska.
This spring, she did it again. A week after pandemic restrictions closed the museum on March 13, museum staff began organizing themselves to preserve the history of the pandemic.
“It’s a key moment in Alaska history,” Decker said.
The Anchorage Museum, and similar institutions across Alaska and the United States, is asking itself two key questions: How do you explain the pandemic to someone 100 years from now? What do you need to preserve now in order to do that?
Adding to the challenge, those same museums aren’t immune from the pandemic’s effects: Galleries are closed, donations have stopped, and budgets are being cut.
Early this year, Alexandra Lord, chair and curator of the division of medicine and science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, began thinking about COVID-19.
Most museums collect items and information after an event, when historians already know its importance. But in January, when reports of a new disease started coming out of China, Lord and the Smithsonian’s medical history unit began what’s known as “contemporary collecting.”
As the Brenham Heritage Museum in Texas puts it, contemporary collecting means “Get it now, get it while you still can, as it will be harder to get it later.”
At the start of the year, Lord was focused on the experience of Americans fighting COVID in China. As the disease spread, so did the Smithsonian’s aim.
“I’d say that it’s a gargantuan task for us. This is similar, in many ways, to collecting around a war. It is something that impacts everyone in America,” she said.
Lord calls contemporary collecting “difficult,” even though museums are always doing it to some degree — think of political memorabilia from an election, she said.
The Smithsonian’s current mobilization among all of its museums is unusual, however.
Like the Smithsonian, the Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum and smaller museums across the state are interested right now in “ephemera.”
That includes “signs that people have on their doors, or any sort of things that might be created — someone wearing a mask, the social distancing signs. Those sort of things you put up, you use for a while, and you discard,” said Patience Fredericksen, Alaska’s state librarian.
The trouble is that most museums are still closed because of pandemic restrictions and aren’t accepting physical donations yet.
“We are simply asking people to put objects aside,” Lord said.
Masks as centerpiece
At the Smithsonian’s many museums, the potential catalog of items is immense, Lord said. They’re considering ventilators, test kits, protective equipment, the plastic barriers from grocery stores and the hand sanitizer manufactured by breweries and distilleries on an emergency basis.
Lord and Alaska curators said masks, above all else, seem to be the symbol of the pandemic.
“We’re thinking a great deal about masks,” Lord said. “We feel that’s an object that’s really iconic and representative of the pandemic’s impacts.”
As she explained, masks can tell stories about the people who are making them. A poorly sewn mask might reveal someone who needed protective gear but couldn’t find it and was willing to sew, even when they doubted their skills.
Masks also have been the center of political debates over pandemic health restrictions and individual rights. Because they’re worn by many Americans, custom masks can tell individual stories, Lord said.
“We’re looking at children’s masks, because that tells us a great deal about what it feels like for parents and children,” she said.
The Anchorage Museum is among several that have commissioned a mask from Tlingit weaver Lily Hope. In an April art exhibition, Hope debuted a woven mask created using traditional materials and techniques and 60 hours of hand-intensive work. That original mask has since been acquired by the Burke Museum in Seattle, but she intends to create others.
“Chilkat blankets on the Northwest coast have been documenting … significant events for hundreds of years, so I thought, why isn’t someone — OK, it’s going to be me — someone needs to document this time,” she said.
Budgets and reopening
At the Anchorage Museum, Decker said she’s also thinking about how museums themselves might need to change after the pandemic.
“People are going to experience museums in different ways,” she said. They might not want to mingle in a crowd, for example.
The economic effects of the pandemic are hitting museums too. At the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Angela Linn is in charge of collecting material related to the pandemic but doesn’t have an acquisitions budget, “so I can’t go out and buy a whole bunch of things,” she said.
She thinks smaller museums are worrying about paying their staff first, then concerned about reopening, and only afterward able to focus on collecting.
“We kind of have our hierarchy of needs that we’re working through,” she said.
With physical items not yet being accepted, Linn has been encouraging Alaskans to submit their stories, ideas and photographs online. The Anchorage Museum is also collecting digital items and photographs and is thinking about collecting podcasts and sound recordings as well, Decker said.
The Smithsonian is soliciting suggestions by email.
Lord said museums’ job documenting the pandemic is “huge and daunting,” and it won’t end anytime soon.
“This is something that we will be doing for years to come. It is something that we’re trying to do right now because we know people will throw things out, but we know that five, 10, 15, 20, 40 years from now, we will still be collecting around COVID-19,” she said.
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