Museums all around the world are collecting Covid-related material. At one level, this is hardly surprising: this is a global transformative event and future generations will need to see what it did to us, how we tried to cope. But they should also be given praise for doing it at a time when they are all locked down. For most, the collecting process – usually an online callout for objects allied to more proactive spotting of themes and requesting of material – started in March or April last year at just the time museums were closing their doors and curators were taking to their laptops at home.
The example of how not to do it is the great flu pandemic of 1918-20, another global transformative event that killed tens of millions but does not figure much in museum collections. People were either too exhausted after four years of war or too traumatised by having another catastrophe to cope with to record it. “The collection I look after has over 150,000 objects covering many different areas,” says Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the Science Museum in London, “yet you could count the items relating to Spanish flu on one hand.”
The Science Museum and other institutions were determined to do better this time round, although this too has had its own challenges. McEnroe says she and her team haven’t been able to make the usual site visits to look for objects that scientists might take for granted but which, to a curator, are gold dust. She also worries about the ethics of bothering researchers at this critical moment. “Our address books are full of people who are experts in viruses,” she says, “but suddenly, no matter how important I think collecting Covid-related pieces is, developing a vaccine is an awful lot more important, and should I really be stopping them by ringing up and chatting?”
The items shown here have been collected by museums around the world. They range from high science to objects that show how ordinary people tried to tame the virus by representing it, and how they adapted their behaviour to help others. Many express the social solidarity people felt in the first phase of the pandemic in spring 2020 – a feeling of togetherness that is now fraying. It will eventually be the job of museums to show how our response to the virus, just like the virus itself, mutated over time. The clapping stopped; the rainbows in windows faded; we wanted to know when it would be our turn to have the vaccine.
Curators have barely begun to think about how to periodise the pandemic. We don’t even know yet how long it will continue or what form it will take in the future. For the moment, they continue to collect objects and document what they gather; the documentation will be crucial in giving historians and the general public context for the objects when they view them 50 years from now. Why were people wearing Black Lives Matter masks? How did Chinese communities respond to being attacked? Why did touch become so toxic, distance when you held a conversation so crucial? How did toilet rolls become symbols of panic buying? What was the obsession with crochet?
Should there be a central museum of Covid? Most of these institutions think not, though it may at some point be possible to gather together material from individual collections in one place online. The pandemic is proving to be a universal experience, but local and regional variations matter, and curators want their collections to reflect what is happening to people in their area. “Our aim is to document how people reacted to the crisis and what strategy they found to cope with daily life,” says Martina Nussbaumer, curator of cultural history and the history of everyday life at Vienna’s Wien Museum.
Museums recognise they will have to tell a complex story. The Museum of London is even setting out to document our dreams in this anxious, insomnia-filled period. But the objects are the starting point: physical, tangible, “carriers of stories”, as Nussbaumer puts it. They are manifestations of our strange current reality that we can see and touch, although not for the moment. They are our message to the future.
Science Museum, London: ‘We had to call in lots of favours to grab this item as it fell into the bin’
Historic vaccine vial This is the vial that marked the start of the biggest vaccine campaign in NHS history. It contained the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine given to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan – the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer jab following clinical approval – on 8 December 2020. The Science Museum also has the syringe that was used for that first jab. “This is something that will speak to our visitors because it is both the everyday and is also absolutely unique,” says Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the museum. “These tiny vials will be thrown away in their millions, and we had to call in a lot of favours to grab this one as it fell into the bin and save it to go on display. It packs an emotional punch. I’m famously hard-hearted, but when this was handed over to me I did choke up. It was a powerful moment.”
Lectern signage The Science Museum has secured four lots of signage from the daily Covid briefings from 10 Downing Street: “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives”; “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”; “Hands, Face, Space”; and “Stay Home this Easter”. “When it comes to trying to collect around public health, one of the most important things is to collect messaging,” says McEnroe. “We’ve got several copies of the letter that Boris Johnson wrote to the nation. We’ve got it in Welsh as well as English. That’s the sort of ephemera that can just melt away. But we felt that a key visual example of formal government and scientific messaging was the instantly recognisable lectern signage.”
Covid-themed greetings cards “We were quite surprised to see that Covid-themed greetings cards were a thing,” says McEnroe. The Science Museum has collected Christmas cards, birthday cards and Eid cards with a Covid-related message. “A lot of them are jokes about isolation and not seeing each other. There’s one with an elf on it that says: ‘Hello, I’m elf-isolating.’ There’s another that says ‘Ho ho ho’ and the final O is the famous coronavirus sphere. There’s political humour, loo roll jokes, lots of thumbing your nose at fear.” The museum has also collected Covid-related Christmas tree decorations – baubles in the shape of the spiky virus. McEnroe reckons they demonstrate the British sense of humour, but hopes they won’t have to come out of the decorations box again in 2021.
Museum of London: ‘Coronavirus triggered an increase in discrimination against Chinese people’
Racism is a Virus/Make Love not Racism poster, flyer and sticker “The coronavirus epidemic triggered an increase in discrimination against Chinese people and communities, as well as other people from south-east Asia who are often perceived as Chinese,” says Beatrice Behlen, the curator leading the Covid collecting project at the Museum of London. “In February 2020, an anti-racism protest was organised in Trafalgar Square by the Chinese Against Racist Virus movement, and these stickers, posters and flyers were produced.” Behlen says the protest materials were made by Chinese students, demonstrating how the community was fighting back against the stigmatisation that came in the wake of the spread of coronavirus.
58 Gin hand sanitiser This was one of the first objects collected by the Museum of London when it embarked on its Covid collecting project in April 2020. “The sanitiser is made by 58 Gin, a micro gin distillery in Haggerston, east London,” says Behlen. “They were making drinks for a charity event on 12 March 2020 and discovered there wasn’t enough sanitiser available, so switched their production with the aim of producing 3,000 bottles of sanitiser for NHS key workers, care homes and hospices.” Behlen emphasises that the company continued to produce its core product: gin has also been crucial in surviving lockdown.
Origins Sound NHS scarf These scarves were made and sold by the house and techno record label Origins Sound, with all the proceeds used to pay for local businesses to supply meals to key workers at hospitals across London. With gigs and parties banned, the company had no outlet for its merchandise, so it switched to making Covid-related scarves and masks. Buying food from local restaurants for key workers also helped that struggling sector. “It shows how quickly businesses reacted,” says Behlen, “but also the efforts made to support the NHS.” She believes the football-style scarf design suggests the resilience of the response – the refusal to be cowed.
Museums & Galleries Edinburgh: ‘It shows a brilliant cross-section of pandemic experiences – PPE, rainbows, Tiger King’
Crocheted memory blanket This blanket was created by Edinburgh-based Laura Barnet to memorialise key events and themes in lockdown. “What we found really striking about the blanket,” says Anna MacQuarrie, history curator at Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, “was that it shows a brilliant cross-section of pandemic experiences – things such as PPE, rainbows for the NHS, clap for carers – but also has lots of pop culture references. Early in lockdown, it seemed like half the world was watching Tiger King, for instance, and TikTok videos became a super-craze in the second part of the year. So it covers both sides of it: the seriousness of what was going on, but also the fun and the things that were getting people through lockdown.”
Face shield Eli Jacks is a postal worker in South Queensferry, near Edinburgh. He is also part of a 3D printing group that set out to manufacture and distribute face shields. “I thought it was a really interesting community-driven effort,” says MacQuarrie, “so I approached Eli to request one of these for the collection.” Jacks and his group started making the masks at an early stage in the pandemic last year, when there was a panic about a lack of PPE. They produced 6,500 shields and distributed them free to key workers locally. They crowdfunded the purchase of the materials and raised £4,500 more than they needed, so distributed that to other local charities. “It was a proper grassroots, community-level project,” says MacQuarrie, “and it really helped people who were out there working. Not just because it made them feel safe, but because they knew the community was looking out for them. It was a beautiful thing.”
Annotated shopping lists This is a shopping list written by a 92-year-old Edinburgh resident who has been shielding during lockdown. He would write the order for an upstairs neighbour in his block of flats who then did the shopping for him, noting down the prices of items. “It shows a sense of togetherness and neighbourliness,” says MacQuarrie.
Wien Museum, Vienna: ‘This cardboard virtual hug shows how creatively children reacted to physical distancing’
Virtual hug This is a “hug” made by a seven-year-old who lives in Upper Austria and wanted to visit his aunt in Vienna in the spring of 2020 for her birthday. He couldn’t come because of lockdown, so sent her a cardboard virtual hug instead for her to hang around her neck. “This object shows how drastic it has been for people not to be able to see or touch their relatives and friends during lockdown,” says Martina Nussbaumer, curator of cultural history at the City Museum of Vienna. “It also shows how creatively children reacted to the challenge of physical distancing.”
Corona dictionary This is a handwritten corona dictionary compiled by a Viennese woman whose mother tongue is Ukrainian. She collected the many new German words that arose during the crisis (Ausgangssperre – curfew, Mindestabstand – minimum distance, Maskenpflicht – obligation to wear masks). These are all words she did not have to know in German in her everyday life before the crisis. In her view, everyday language has also been more strongly influenced by medical words; if there was no translation available in Ukrainian online dictionaries, she looked for Russian or English equivalents. “This is a very interesting object,” says Nussbaumer, “because it not only tells us a lot about the language barriers non-native German speakers had to overcome to cope with the crisis, but also tells us how the German language itself changed during the crisis. The language became more military.”
Crocheted coronavirus “During lockdown, many people knitted, drew, painted and made pottery to stay busy,” says Nussbaumer, “and the work dealt particularly intensively with the virus visualisations that circulated in the media.” Hence this crocheted version of the representation of the virus often shown on television. “Crocheting or knitting it was a way to take away the threat of the virus,” says Nussbaumer. “It wasn’t as dreadful any more.”
Corona snow globe This was made by the Viennese company Wiener Original Schneekugel, which is famous for its snow globes. In spring 2020, the company reacted very quickly to the phenomenon of hoarding goods – and in particular toilet rolls – by producing a globe with a miniature toilet roll made of plastic inside. “It was a great success,” says Nussbaumer, “and gave the company a financial boost during the first lockdown. We collected this object not only as an ironic commentary on the hoarding phenomenon, but also as an example of how Viennese companies reacted to the crisis.”
Black Lives Matter mask “Like other museums, in Vienna we collected a wide range of masks,” says Nussbaumer. “We collected self-made, improvised masks as well as commercial masks made by Viennese companies. This mask was of particular interest because it related to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Vienna.” During the demonstrations, in June 2020, masks were mandatory and this mask, designed by Hannelore Jarvis-Essandoh, was a means of both complying with the regulations and getting across political content. The proceeds from sales of the masks went to the Black Women’s Community, a group in Vienna that organises workshops for diverse groups of women.
New-York Historical Society: ‘Students banded together to do art activism and protect the homeless’
Lucerne Hotel banner “This banner is related to a big controversy on the Upper West Side in New York,” says Rebecca Klassen, associate curator of material culture at the New-York Historical Society. “It was created by a group called the All Street Journal. They are art students who banded together in June 2020 to do art activism at Black Lives Matter protests. They linked with a group on the Upper West Side that was formed around the Lucerne Hotel, where men who had been in homeless shelters were being accommodated because of the pandemic.” The use of the hotel to house homeless people was resisted by some local residents, and a well-organised and vocal battle between the two sides ensued. This large canvas banner was hung outside the hotel to welcome the new guests, while protesters sympathetic to the initiative organised a sleep-out on the pavement.