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Museums collect COVID-19 pandemic 'artifacts'

Sabine Oelze db
April 20, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, many museums are documenting the historic event with photos of empty seats, self-made face masks or pandemic diaries. Here's how the state of emergency is being archived for future generations.

Wien Museum | Projekt: "Corona in Vienna"
Image: Wien Museum/Peter Feermann & Esther Zahel

Rita Wagner sits alone in her office in the Cologne City Museum. Most of her colleagues currently work from home. This is my first interview ever wearing a face mask — that alone is a historic moment in the new "normal" of our everyday lives in the coronavirus pandemic. No one knows how these months shaped by exceptional circumstances will go down in history. Historians like Wagner face a special challenge: What can museums do when everyday life has come to a virtual standstill and the situation changes daily?

They can collect evidence of the present for the future. How has the pandemic changed our households, workplaces and leisure activities?

Museums and universities all over Germany, from Hamburg to Munich and Cologne, are asking people not to throw away objects that shape their current lives, but to take photographs of them, or mail them to the museums. They want to capture everyday life in the spring of 2020, not only for personal, but for collective memory.

Corona collection project

The Wien Museum in Vienna, Austria, was one of the first museums to realize that these testimonies have great significance for the future.

More than 1,300 people have already responded since March 25, and have sent the museum their impressions of the coronavirus pandemic by e-mail using the tag "Corona memory."

"One of my favorite objects is a crocheted coronavirus," says museum director Matti Bunzl. "It is not only cute, it shows that objects are ambassadors of their time."

A crocheted virus
A crocheted virusImage: Wien Museum/Monika Österreicher,

Bunzl points out that this pandemic cannot be compared with epidemics in earlier times. "We live in an age in which most people know about biological structures," he argues, adding that this becomes clear when you look at the crocheted virus: it is red and yellow. "A representation like this is something completely new in the history of medicine," says Bunzl.

Drawings of the plague often demonized the disease because people simply didn't understand it, the director says. "Today, popular medical knowledge is quite different."

In addition, it has never been so easy to document everyday life. Smart phones create possibilities that other eras lacked. People did not have balcony concerts during past epidemics — and even if they did, there were no digital means to record them. The documents and objects on the Vienna museum's website also show that the coronavirus pandemic, despite all the uncertainties, has triggered creativity. People have been seen walking through a park holding wooden slats to keep the right distance from others, DIY spit guards are set up in front of shops, and everywhere, people wear facemasks cobbled together from leftover scraps of cloth.

A COVID-19 testing station on Oktoberfest grounds

Olaf Menzel has been photographing people waiting in their cars in a long line at a mobile coronavirus testing station on the Theresienwiese in Munich — right where the hugely popular Oktoberfest takes place every year.

Never before in recent history has a crisis completely changed life in such a short period of time: Social contacts outside the family with more than two people are forbidden; schools and kindergartens are closed, as are event venues and shops. People stand in long lines in front of supermarkets — keeping their distance, of course — waiting their turn to enter, as only a fixed number of people are allowed to be in the stores at the same time. Discarded rubber gloves dot the streets, paths and bushes.

Disposable Glove on Sidewalk
Scattered in the city: disposable glovesImage: Wien Museum/Charlotte Repper

What is historically meaningful?

Rita Wagner hasn't yet decided which objects are historically significant. She wants to collect as many as possible to give future generations a glimpse of how this pandemic affected people. The first inventoried object of the pandemic in the Cologne City Museum is a leaflet of the City of Cologne about how to deal with the coronavirus crisis. "We have also been promised two protective face masks worn at the last council meeting in Cologne, by one of the mayors and another council member."

The German Historical Museum in Berlin also sees the pandemic as a new chapter of collection history and plans to tie it in with already existing collections. Some historical objects are reminiscent of past epidemics like the plague, but they are primarily medical testimonies to the fight against diseases or how the sick were segregated, says Fritz Backhaus, head of the museum's collection department.

Documenting everyday life

The Cologne City Museum has a painting of plague-sick soldiers in front of Cologne Cathedral in the 17th century — but there are no everyday objects from that time, Wagner says.

There isn't much from the past century, either. "In the 20th century people were rather embarrassed by illness, only medical-historical collections record contemporary witnesses." For a long time, documenting everyday life was limited to folkloristic objects or farming tools, she says, adding that collecting all kinds of present-day objects only started in the 1970s. The Cologne City Museum hopes to expand its collection to include objects specific to the coronavirus crisis, she says; future generations will be free to make what they want of it.

Toilet roll, 'home office' and data privacy

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