Opinion

Mathew Trinca
Sharing our lockdown experiences

The response was clear and immediate. Within minutes of launching the National Museum of Australia’s project to record our collective experiences of the coronavirus, scores of people across the country joined in to share how they were coping with the crisis.

“I’ve been waiting for something like this to start,” one woman wrote in our Facebook group that first day. More followed, posting photographs, videos and stories to the Bridging the Distance project, across social media and to the museum’s site.

There was a couple in face masks for their wedding photos. A game of Twister amended to comply with social distancing rules. A global online celebration of a young woman’s recently completed PhD. And my favourite – a roll of toilet paper sprayed gold.

Common themes emerged quickly as the posts rolled in. Post-apocalyptic views of our city streets, hauntingly vacant, with barely a person to be seen. The extraordinary creativity and invention that are keeping people amused day after day in their homes. But, above all, there was a shared awareness that we were living through a defining moment in global history.

What I have seen is unprecedented in my lifetime, and I dare say that is true for a great number of you too. But perhaps not for all of us. Not for those who have lived through war, for instance: the exigencies of today are not so trenchant, nor so costly in terms of human life, as what they have been in wartime. And those few among us who were alive a hundred years ago survived an influenza outbreak that infected a third of the world’s population and claimed many millions of lives.

The archives from that pandemic still paint a vivid picture of the experience of the Spanish flu in Australia – the attempted marine quarantines as soldiers returned en masse from the battlegrounds of World War I, the scramble as Commonwealth Serum Laboratories attempted to formulate a vaccine, the confusion surrounding the first cases that emerged in Melbourne in January 1919, the tensions as states and territories moved to try to stop the spread across borders.

History may be in the telling, but you need to be able to recall what happened and what it felt like to really know the past.

This was why the National Museum started the Bridging the Distance project, seeking to keep these posts as “virtual objects” of our shared Covid-19 experience. It was an approach we trialled with a similar online project, Fridge Door Fire Stories, during that other crisis – the summer of bushfires that has all too quickly passed from our minds as we deal with this new threat.

Collecting online is a new take on that long-established museum practice of making, keeping and presenting collections of objects that bring our stories of the past alive. But there is a lot more to this project than making an online archive. Its real worth has come in enabling people to join together and exchange views of what is happening to them.

Looking at the response to the project you can see, very clearly, that people have needed to express how they are dealing with this new world. They have wanted to share their own ideas, as much as they want to learn how it’s affecting others.

This is the deeper truth embedded in the digital turn of institutions such as my own, which once were all about the stories they told. We now contend with audiences who are intent on telling us what they know.

This is why I am convinced that life on the other side of this crisis will not be quite the same as it was before. For all my love of history, I know you can’t just turn the clock back.

Not at institutions such as the National Museum and others, which, as they have been forced to close their doors, have quickly thrown their staff and resources into expanding their online presence. Like most other public organisations, we are now trying to reach people at home, wherever they are, rather than asking them to come to us.

When we do reopen, I think we will see the pent-up demand of people who have been starved of experiences outside the home. I do expect a mini-boom of visitors, as people breathe a collective sigh of relief and celebrate by going to all the places, museums included, that they love.

But they also will have come to expect a lot more of us online because, like the museum, so many cultural institutions have compressed years’ worth of digital adoption into just weeks. And perhaps because their sense of their own place in society itself will have changed, too.

Almost 30 years ago, the writer, teacher and critic Howard Rheingold coined the term “virtual community” to describe people of common interest who connected online. He saw these new attachments, unlimited by the old geographical sense of community, as offering personal benefits as well as collective goods. Having had his own doubts about the impact of these communication technologies on society, he came to see the potential for this connectedness to augment our lives.

Rheingold anticipated the world we live in today. But just as we have hurried to use these new digital tools, we have also become more cynical about their effects on our social lives. Dystopic visions of technologised futures find full expression in our media and popular culture. We worry about our children online, even while we spend more and more time with our own devices. Perhaps this is just the cultural conundrum at the heart of our digital age – the feeling of being impelled inexorably forward, while looking back longingly to a simpler imagined past.

Yet if the coronavirus crisis has done anything, it has given us more time to think. When I look at the public response to Bridging the Distance and other online efforts to connect people during this time, I’m struck by the thought that the digital world is actually saving our sense of community. At a time when we endure hardships and loneliness, it is the grace and kindness shown by people expressing their own fears and anxieties about this pandemic online that give me comfort.

It is too early to tell how any of this will end, but I do know I am grateful for this online connection. Haven’t we all felt that we are actually making more effort to catch up with distant friends and family than we might have done ordinarily at other times? At the museum, our executive team has been struck by the fact we actually feel more engaged with one another since working from home.

I think about my children and how – if not for their classes being online in recent weeks – they would’ve had to rely on the uncertain attentions, and abilities, of their parents in order to learn anything at all. There’s no doubt they miss the contact with teachers and friends, but it has been possible for them to keep up with their work, and in some senses exceed their expectations by actually enjoying it.

Covid-19 has threatened both our individual and collective lives. It has demanded something of us that seems entirely antithetical to our social natures as human beings – that is, to separate from one another in order to survive.

At a time when we have been forced into physical isolation, what a wonder it is to realise we seem to be drawing closer together online. But not in a way that necessarily suggests the digital will somehow supplant the physical.

I am certain the things we have learnt at the museum in engaging with people across the country and around the world through programs such as Fridge Door Fire Stories and Bridging the Distance is something we want to hold to in the future. The digital turn is not one we will roll back, however much the material world will remain at the heart of what we do. The trick for all of us may be in how we reimagine our idea of community by combining the best of our physical and virtual selves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "A collection of connection".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Mathew Trinca is the director of the National Museum of Australia, chair of ICOM Australia and co-chair of the Australia–Singapore Arts Group.