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In an effort to make sense of this moment in history, museums around the country have begun the work of documenting people’s experiences of the coronavirus pandemic. By Lauren Carroll Harris.

Museums collecting Covid-19 objects

A photograph uploaded to the National Museum of Australia’s Bridging the Distance group on Facebook.
Credit: Jacq Miller / Bridging the Distance

It’s the kind of photo anybody could take with their smartphone. A sign in a child’s scrawl sits in the front window of a red-brick suburban home alongside soft toys: “Thank you for our shopping. We love you.”

Capturing both the frustration of life indoors and the effort to reach out and connect, and shared to the National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) coronavirus Facebook group, this picture could become one of the hundreds of mundane moments collected by cultural institutions to document how the coronavirus is changing everyday life.

In late March, after cultural events were cancelled and arts institutions closed their doors, museums opened themselves to a new challenge: how to collect the pandemic. “On January 25, we knew Covid-19 was happening overseas and the first Australian case was found,” says Craig Middleton, a curator in the Centre for Defining Moments in Australian History at the NMA. “We didn’t know what the impact would be. Before we could get started on the content and the collecting, the museum had to make sure we had the right approach.”

Middleton says that a week after closing the museum’s doors they opened the Facebook group Bridging the Distance – Sharing our Covid-19 Pandemic Experiences. He sees the group as “a civic project. It’s about creating these safe spaces.” It collects a time line of memories and testimonies from citizens of their everyday life during the pandemic. The thousands of posts it has attracted will inform a future exhibition of unremarkable ephemera related to the health, economic and psychosocial crises of the minute.

Some of the group’s posts are as you’d expect: empty Melbourne streetscapes, mega-packs of toilet paper, people asking for penpals. One member posts a pampered selfie taken in a salon mirror, a damp towel across her shoulders and a disposable mask across her face. It’s almost a normal photograph.

This is how museums begin the work of remembering history. The nascent narrative in the Bridging the Distance time line, says Middleton, has moved from early anxiety and fear surrounding the virus to community support and resilience.

Other institutions are already sourcing artefacts. Among the coronavirus acquisitions it has made from March onwards, Museums Victoria holds digital photos of empty check-in desks at Melbourne Airport and front-line moments with essential workers, a colour image of SARS-CoV-2 that could just as easily be of intergalactic detritus, and a time-lapse video of a coronavirus-infected kidney cell that glows with a science-fiction aura. Over 15 seconds, insidious dark dots bloom in horrific greyscale.

As a curator of social history who trained in anthropology, Judith Hickson of Queensland Museum sees the current challenge as one of collecting multiple community histories rather than any single narrative. Her goal is that “it’s not the museum’s curatorial voice coming across so much as the voices of those affected by the crisis. Those stories should meet the satisfaction of the communities, so they’re involved in the exhibitions we do and the stories we tell.”

“Every age has its collecting concerns,” says Hickson. “The idea of documenting contemporary history is relatively new. That type of collecting has changed a lot already because museums are running out of space, and the capacity to preserve is smaller. So, we have to make a case for collecting. Same with libraries: they’re running out of space for books. We have to think: What would people want to see in the future? What would they want to know?”

Among other unexceptional curios, Queensland Museum has a lanyard from Princess Cruises and health posters from Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council. Capturing the pivoting by businesses to capitalise on new consumer needs is another focus of its acquisitions: a designer face mask made by a Brisbane boutique, hand sanitiser produced by a local men’s grooming company. Rather than a coronavirus-themed exhibition, Queensland Museum is exploring a sideways view of what the disaster has meant for people’s lives by including the stories of six Covid-19 weddings in its upcoming exhibition I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland.

At the NMA, medical equipment such as testing kits and ventilators will be gathered once they’ve become non-functional. Difficult decisions will be made about which artefacts are the most historically valuable. “We’re attempting to document this digital life that people are living,” says Middleton. “I think of those amazing photos of people connecting through windows. The objects that relate to these experiences aren’t necessarily obvious. We’re thinking about the keepsakes people have, the gifts they’re getting.”

Posterity and human impact are the mandates. It’s easy to think of museums as places for grand, beautiful ornaments: crown jewels, Ming dynasty pottery, the stuff of Egyptian tombs. But social history museums often hold collections that are spectacularly ordinary. The smaller, the more inconsequential, the more personal, the better. History as it unfolds is banal and the experience of the coronavirus has been, for many, one of enforced domesticity and waiting.

“These objects won’t look like anything on their own,” says Middleton. “So we’re seeking to make an exhibition next year that does some of that work.” Humble objects have their own strange lives. They signify the traumas and memories of actual people. But they need titles, oral histories and captions to come alive. For historical context, coronavirus-themed exhibitions may connect to other items: vaccine bottles from the Spanish flu, pharmaceutical paraphernalia from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, documentation of First Nations health and emergent Black Lives Matter collections. In that longer view of history, Covid-19 may not look like an isolated rupturing of the present but a continuity of bodily threats and social disorder. It may even feel fathomable.

And yet, due to lacunas in policy frameworks and the institutional cultures that follow them, Australian museums are at a disadvantage compared with their overseas counterparts. “With the UK, as early as 2000, arts and cultural policy identified museums’ role as having a social responsibility,” says Middleton. “So, they’re much further ahead in this thinking. There’s research that suggests that, for example, doctors can prescribe museum visits because it’s good for your mental health. Back in the 2000s, when the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport redid the national cultural policy, they included museums as ensuring community wellbeing. That’s not reflected in Australian cultural policy.”

So how do museums here collect something as elusive as an experience? And how do you document an incomplete moment of uncertainty and flux?

“When I talk about contemporary collecting, it’s about capturing the current moment,” says Middleton. “Preserving, getting a sense of the key issues, the key people, the general feeling of the everyday. The beauty of contemporary collecting is that we have opportunities to deeply document these things. If we go back to the 1800s, we can’t talk to people. We can listen to recordings and read books and government records and look at second-hand research. But with contemporary collecting, we’re in it and we can capture nuance and complexity that’s not documented. We’re talking to people in real time.

“The idea of a social history museum emerged from the idea of history from below,” continues Middleton. “We’re not just looking for the profiled people in positions of power, we’re looking at the working class, the lower classes, we’re looking at people who’ve been racialised and people with disabilities. We’ll be collecting stories from the people in the towers. We’ll be talking to people who attended Black Lives Matter rallies and the decisions they made. We’re thinking about Covid-19 as a moment of profound change and how we understand profound change is that it brings to light the structures of our world – the not-so-good structures and the ones that are actually quite robust. Covid is intersecting with everything.

“We’re very much in the thick of it,” he says. “The thing with any collection we build is that they relate personal stories to something bigger. That’s what we bring out when we display things. When you bring stories and objects and image and text together you can actually demonstrate intangible things like kindness and hope and resilience.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "Collecting thoughts".

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Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and curator.