The day George Floyd died, Arike Oke was in a quandary. As the boss of Black Cultural Archives, the only national heritage centre dedicated to celebrating black British history, she was more attuned to the outpouring of grief than most. “We are a Black-led organisation, 90 per cent of the staff are black, 90 per cent of the board are black. And we were bombarded by images of someone being killed,” she says. “We were all incredibly upset.”
In another year she would have mobilised her team to meet with protestors — many of them experiencing activism for the first time — and record their responses. But we were in a pandemic. The UK had just posted the highest death toll in Europe, the second highest in the world. The country was in lockdown. Her staff had been furloughed. “It was the worst possible time for us to start something new and experimental.”
The resulting scheme, “Document! Black Lives Matter”, invited people to donate their “digital photographs, videos, artworks, petitions, articles, poems and more to create the Black Lives Matter archive at the BCA”. “What,” it wondered, “will the future generations remember of this time?” They weren’t the only ones asking. In Britain and the US, museums and cultural institutions began launching initiatives to record 2020’s unprecedented chaos.
“We have several different, very compelling social and health issues all happening at the same time — you can’t help feel that you’re living through history, and wonder what your place is going to be, looking back,” says Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. He’s been overseeing “New York Responds”, which invites people to share objects, photographs and stories of a city going through the pandemic, severe economic collapse and an uprising against police violence, using the hashtags #CovidStoriesNYC and #ActivistNY.
Something similar is happening at the New-York Historical Society, with its “History Responds” initiative. “Are you participating in the protests and creating your own signs, flyers, posters, or hand-painted T-shirts?” it asks, in its request for “meaningful items”. “Are you keeping a diary, making lists, or taking photographs that reflect sheltering in place?” “Do your food-delivery menus, apartment-building notices, or neighbourhood flyers reference the pandemic?”
“The items we’re collecting,” says museum director Margi Hofer, “show that people are finding ways to express their feelings of fear and isolation.”
In times of crises, objects become charged with new meaning and new purpose. That’s what Brendan Cormier, senior design curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has found with “Pandemic Objects”. That collection includes hand sanitiser, children’s rainbow drawings and the video game Animal Crossing. But also a skipping rope, fold-up bicycle and “The Balcony”, an urban feature of Clap For Carers.
“One of the revelations has been going on our database and typing in ‘Spanish flu’ and finding that, actually, we collected nothing from that period,” Cormier says. “It’s with great displeasure at my colleagues from 100 years ago that I look back and say, ‘Why didn’t they make a record of this?’ We could have learned so much.”
Perhaps it’s because this sort of curating, known as “Rapid Response Collecting”, is largely a new phenomenon. The V&A didn’t invent it but it did popularise it. In 2014, it introduced “a new type of collecting activity” of “newsworthy objects” that would “reveal truths about how we live”. Taken into the collection under the Rapid Response Collecting banner was a Vype Reload electronic cigarette, a pink “pussyhat” of the type widely worn at the 2017 Women’s Marches and a pair of Primark cotton trousers, made in Bangladesh, representing fast fashion.
The predictable backlash argued that the venerable V&A, home to Meissen porcelain, 16th-century musical instruments and Charles Dickens’ papers, among more than two million other items, ought to be collecting objects for their rarity, beauty and craftsmanship, and that a 3D-printed gun represented none of these (though it certainly got the museum press). If Rapid Response Collecting seemed radical at the time, Pandemic Objects is another step on.
“Generally, when we make a rapid response acquisition, we have a very clear idea of what the story we want to tell with the object is,” Cormier says. “With the pandemic, the story is evolving and changing. Institutions are generally perfectionists, in that they don’t go public with anything until that’s resolved. It’s really refreshing to work on a project where the bar is a bit lower and there’s room to experiment.”
Face masks, for example, took on new meaning when they went from being used for personal protection, to carrying political slogans.
With many museums still closed, or reopening in some limited form, most curatorial teams have yet to bring these objects on site, with plans to exhibit them still some time in the future. It turns out collecting objects that tell the story of a pandemic isn’t that easy during a pandemic.
“With the museum being shut down, it’s not been as simple as going out to a site and bringing the materials back,” says Aaron Bryant, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution, currently gathering artwork, murals, protest signs, flyers and articles of protestors’ clothing, for their own archives. Like the other institutions, in order to collect history as it’s happening, they’ve had to enlist the public’s help.
“We’ve been asking people to hold on to material,” Bryant says. “Until there’s been a safe time for us to pick it up, or to have it sent.”
The response has been extraordinary, and he thinks he knows why. “It’s the simple fact that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” he says. “Charles Taylor, the political scientist, called it the ‘politics of recognition’. He talks about this idea that people need to be recognised, and how being misrepresented does psychological harm and social damage. If such-and-such a group is not being recognised, then the same thing can happen to me. That’s why we focus on, and elevate, the everyday. Because it’s everyday people who shape history.
“So I hope the stuff I collect today will resonate with people in 100 years because they see themselves in a story, or see themselves in an object.”
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