A few weeks ago, a nerdy joke went viral on Twitter: Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in.
As museum curators and archivists stare down one of the most daunting challenges of their careers — telling the story of the pandemic; followed by severe economic collapse and a nationwide social justice movement — they are imploring individuals across the country to preserve personal materials for posterity, and for possible inclusion in museum archives. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, they say.
“Our cultural seismology is being revealed,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History of the events. Of these three earth-shaking events, she said, “The confluence is unlike most anything we’ve seen.”
Museums, she said, are grappling “with the need to comprehend multiple pandemics at once.”
We Are All Field Collectors
Last August, Dr. Erik Blutinger joined the staff of Mt. Sinai Queens as an emergency medicine physician. He knew that his first year after residency would be intense, but nothing could have prepared him for the trial-by-fire that was Covid-19.
Aware that he was at the epicenter not only of a global pandemic, but of history, Dr. Blutinger, 34, began to take iPhone videos of the scenes in his hospital, which was one of New York City’s hardest hit during the early days of the crisis.
“Everyone is Covid positive in these hallways,” he told the camera in one April 9 recording which has since been posted on the Mount Sinai YouTube channel, showing the emergency room hallways filled with hissing oxygen tanks, and the surge tents set up outside the building. “All you hear is oxygen. I’m seeing young patients, old patients, people of all age ranges, who are just incredibly sick.”
He estimated that he has recorded over 50 video diaries in total.
In Louisville, Ky., during the protests and unrest that followed the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Louisville resident, filmmaker named Milas Norris rushed to the streets to shoot footage using a Sony camera and a drone.
“It was pretty chaotic,” said Mr. Norris, 24, describing police in riot gear, explosions, and gas and pepper bullets. He said that at first he didn’t know what he would do with the footage; he has since edited and posted some of it on his Instagram and Facebook accounts. “I just knew that I had to document and see what exactly was happening on the front lines.”
About 2,000 miles west, in Los Angeles, NPR producer Nina Gregory, 45, had set up recording equipment on the front patio of her Hollywood home. In March and April, she recorded the absence of city noise. “The sound of birds was so loud it was pinging red on my levels,” she said.
Soon the sounds of nature were replaced by the sounds of helicopters from the Los Angeles Police Department hovering overhead, and the sounds of protesters and police convoys moving through her neighborhood. She recorded all this for her personal records.
“It’s another form of diary,” she said.
Museums have indicated that these kinds of private recordings have critical value as public historical materials. All of us, curators say, are field collectors now.
‘A National Reckoning’
In the spirit of preservation, Ms. Hartig from the National Museum of American History — along with museum collectors across the country — have begun avid campaigns to “collect the moment.”
“I do think it’s a national reckoning project,” she said. There are “a multitude of ways in which we need to document and understand — and make history a service. This is one of our highest callings.”
Some museums have assembled rapid response field collecting teams to identify and secure storytelling objects and materials. Perhaps the most widely-publicized task force, assembled by three Smithsonian museums working in a coalition, dispatched curators to Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to identify protest signs for eventual possible collection.
The collecting task force went into action after June 1, when President Trump ordered Lafayette Square cleared of protesters so he could pose for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, clutching a bible. Shield-bearing officers and mounted police assailed peaceful protesters there with smoke canisters, pepper bullets, flash grenades and chemical spray. The White House subsequently ordered the construction of an 8-foot-high chain link fence around the perimeter, which protesters covered in art and artifacts.
Taking immediate moves to preserve these materials — much of which was made of paper and was vulnerable to the elements — amounted to a curatorial emergency for the Smithsonian’s archivists.
Yet with many museums still closed, or in the earliest stages of reopening, curatorial teams largely cannot yet bring most objects into their facilities. It is falling to individuals to become their own interim museums and archives.
The Ordinary is Extraordinary (Even Your Shopping Lists)
While some curators are loathe to suggest a laundry list of items that we should be saving — they say that they don’t want to manipulate the documentation of history, but take their cues from the communities they document — many are imploring us to see historical value in the everyday objects of right now.
“Whatever we’re taking to be ordinary within this abnormal moment can, in fact, serve as an extraordinary artifact to our children’s children,” said Tyree Boyd-Pates, an associate curator at the Autry Museum of the American West, which is asking the public to consider submitting materials such as journal entries, selfies and even sign-of-the times social media posts (say, a tweet about someone’s quest for toilet paper — screengrab those, he said)
To this end, curators said, don’t be so quick to edit and delete your cellphone photos right now. “Snapshots are valuable,” said Kevin Young, the director of New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “We might look back at one and say, ‘This picture tells more than we thought at the time.’”
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the curatorial team will be evaluating and collecting protest materials such as placards, photos, videos and personalized masks — and the personal stories behind them.
“One activist found a tear-gas canister, and he gave it to us,” said Noelle Trent, a director at the museum. “We’re going to have to figure out how to collect items from the opposing side: We have to have the racist posters, the ‘Make America Great’ stuff. We’re going to need that at some point. The danger is that if we don’t have somebody preserving it, they will say this situation was not as bad.”
And there is perhaps no article more representative of this year than the mask, which has “become a really powerful visual symbol,” said Margaret K. Hofer, the vice president and museum director of the New-York Historical Society, which has identified around 25 masks that the museum will collect, including an N95 mask worn by a nurse in the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital set up in New York’s Central Park in the spring. (The museum also collected a set of field hospital scrubs, and a cowbell that the medical team rang whenever they discharged a patient.)
“The meaning of masks has shifted over the course of these past several months,” Ms. Hofer said. “Early on, the ones we were collecting were being sewn by people who were trying to aid medical workers, when there were all those fears about shortage of P.P.E. — last resort masks. And they’ve more recently become a political statement.”
Document the Back Stories Too
Curators say that recording the personal stories behind photos, videos and objects are just as crucial as the objects themselves — and the more personal, the better. Museums rely on objects to elicit an emotional reaction from visitors, and that sort of personal connection requires knowing the object’s back story.
“For us, really the artifact is just a metaphor, and behind that artifact are these voices, and this humanity,” said Aaron Bryant, who curates photography and visual culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and who is leading the Smithsonian’s ongoing collection response in Lafayette Square.
Curatorial teams from many museums are offering to interview donors about their materials and experiences, and encourage donors to include detailed descriptions and back stories when submitting objects and records for consideration. Many are also collecting oral histories of the moment.
How to Donate to a Museum
Many museums have put out calls for submissions on social media and are directing would-be donors to submission forms to their websites. The National Museum of African American History and Culture site has a thorough form that covers items’ significance, dimensions, condition and materials. The Civil Rights Museum is looking for “archival materials, books, photographs, clothing/textiles, audio visual materials, fine art and historic objects” that share civil rights history. The New-York Historical Society is seeking Black Lives Matter protest materials.
“We review material, we talk about it, and we respond to everyone,” said William S. Pretzer, a senior curator of history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We can’t collect everything, but we’re not limiting ourselves to anything.”
Gathering materials from some communities is proving challenging, and curators are strategizing collection from individuals who may be unlikely to offer materials to historical institutions.
“A lot of our critical collecting and gathering of diverse stories we’ve been able to do because of directed outreach,” said Ms. Hofer of the New-York Historical Society. “We’re trying to capture the experience of all aspects of all populations in the city, including people experiencing homelessness and the incarcerated.”
“We want to make the barrier to entry on this very low,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, which began collecting materials relating to pandemic-related racist attacks on Asians and Asian-Americans in late winter, and personal testimonies about experiences during the pandemic and protests. Because museums may not necessarily be obvious repositories for many immigrant communities, Ms. Maasbach said, the museum is making translators available to those who want to tell their stories.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re being accessible in creating this record,” Ms. Maasbach said.
Curators recognize that their story-of-2020 collecting will continue for years; we are in the midst of ongoing events. They are asking us to continue to document the subsequent chapters — and to be as posterity-minded as one can be when it comes to ephemera.
“We don’t know what the puzzle looks like yet,” said Ms. Hartig of the National Museum of American History. “Yet we know that each of these pieces might be an important one.”
Some museums are exhibiting submitted and accepted items right away on websites or on social media; others are planning virtual and physical exhibits for as early as this autumn. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, for example, is collecting masks and oral history testimonies from Native American communities and is considering the creation of a “rapid response gallery,” said the museum’s vice president and chief curator Elisa G. Phelps.
“If art is being sparked by something very timely, we want to have a place where we can showcase works and photos,” she said, adding that this process differed from “the elaborate, formal exhibit development process.”
Some donors, however, may not be among those to view their materials once they become part of institutionalized history — at least not right away. Even though Dr. Blutinger said that he sees the historical value of his emergency room video diaries, he has yet to revisit the peak-crisis videos himself.
“I’m almost scared to look back at them,” he said. “I’m worried that they’ll reignite a set of emotions that I’ve managed to tuck away. I’m sure one day I’ll look back and perhaps open up one or two clips, but I have never watched any of them all the way through.”
Lesley M.M. Blume is a journalist, historian and the author of “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World,” which will be published on August 4.