Its very name is evocative of ancient history, a window into the past. Museum: a place to find dinosaur bones, woolly mammoths, Egyptian tombs.
Museums are also living institutions that are very much engaged with the contemporary: The present that will become the past. And when history is being made, as it is now, museums are alive with plans to reflect that in their collections for future generations of visitors. And for us, too, on the other side of this pandemic – whatever that looks like.
“If we wait too long, a lot of these really significant things will cease to exist,” says Brendan Cormier, senior design curator with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
This rapid response collecting, as it is known in the museum world, is now underway at institutions around the world, which are looking to acquire specific items to reflect this time of history as we are living through it. “We do lose things by not collecting in the moment,” says Cormier, a Canadian, whose department at the V&A – the design, architecture and digital department – came up with the term “rapid response collecting” in 2013.
An early example was a 3-D-printed gun. “For us, it was significant as a news story, an object, because it represented the day 3-D printing lost its innocence,” Cormier says.
Other institutions are holding back somewhat, planning a strategy – or going to the community and asking what they should be collecting to reflect this time, when the COVID-19 pandemic is rippling through every aspect of the way we live.
Murals from boarded-up stores; signs telling park visitors to enjoy the grounds but please keep two metres apart; the rainbow signs kids are making and taping onto windows to thank frontline workers; pots, pans and vuvuzelas used at the 7 p.m. cheer. These could all find their way into various museum collections. But also: ventilators, surgical masks and other apparatuses that evoke this battle with a deadly virus.
Which can also make this a tricky time to embark on such a project.
"[There] is a very, very deep concern we have that we be extraordinarily deliberate, respectful and sensitive,” says Dean Oliver, director of research with the Canadian Museum of History, which is not actively collecting items right now, but has plans to. “We’re very conscious that we’re living in a human catastrophe.”
Collecting digital items – photos and stories – has become a natural first step for many institutions.
“We’re all in uncharted territory,” reads a note to British Columbians on the Royal B.C. Museum’s website, in a callout for pandemic stories in real time. Citing a responsibility to collect and document history as it happens, the museum is asking for photos, videos and mementoes. “We recognize that we’re living in historic times, and we want to ensure that the legacy created reflects what you think is important to remember.”
The museum is not collecting objects just yet, but is asking people to think about it.
“Often in an emergency situation, things are thrown away, so a lot of things will be discarded at the end of this and we want to make sure we can capture examples of that,” says Joanne Orr, deputy CEO and vice-president of collections, research and international programs.
“This is our living heritage right now.”
Orr says the museum has had a “huge” response. “We’ve got some very, very powerful images starting to come in. That’s our start.”
The image being used for the callout is a shot that is emblematic of this strange time: empty supermarket shelves once filled with toilet paper and other household necessities.
Among the photos that have come into the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), which is also collecting stories, is a shot of a grandmother and baby meeting for the first time – through a window. In another photo, a woman poses in a fancy dress she was supposed to be wearing to a fundraiser that night – cancelled, of course.
The MOV has not yet started collecting physical items, but has reached out about the murals that have been painted on boarded-up storefront windows. Some of these murals – including those featuring B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, painted quickly by young artists near the beginning of the shutdown – have become icons of this time.
In Calgary, the Glenbow Museum is asking Albertans to send letters, photos or drawings about this time, which will be incorporated into the Glenbow’s permanent collection. Prompt questions include: What is your daily life like? What brings you joy right now?
In Ontario, Guelph Museums has also issued a coronavirus callout, asking for physical and digital contributions. Among its suggestions: photographs of empty streets, a favourite take-out menu, the CD you listened to for a family dance-off during isolation. “We believe that Rapid Response Collecting will help us to collect and preserve truths about how we are living in this moment,” its website states.
At the Canadian Museum of History (CMH), which also remains closed, discussions are underway about future collecting in four broad areas: the governmental and institutional response; the influence of the pandemic on work, play and family; culture, language, arts and communications; and the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous communities.
Among the examples of potential language and communications collectibles Oliver, the director of research, cited in our interview were new words and phrases that have entered the lexicon – Zoom as a verb, for instance. (I suggested “quarantini.”) Oliver also singled out writing from The Globe and Mail’s European bureau chief Eric Reguly, from quarantine in Italy.
The CMH has just a handful of artifacts from the 1918 pandemic, including a cough syrup box whose label claims it treating symptoms of Spanish Flu. Collecting contemporary items presents a different sort of problem: an almost limitless option of possible acquisitions. “Thirty-nine million Canadians can produce an awful lot of coloured drawings,” Oliver says in Ottawa. “We have to be very careful about how many puzzles we collect.”
As museums – which have had to close their doors because of the pandemic – pivot to online content and engagement, some are making this moment in history part of that content, displaying the photos and other digital items they’ve been collecting.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has a Pandemic Objects blog, with essays on items ranging from the sewing machine to streaming services. The museum recently issued a callout for homemade signs and rainbow drawings made during the lockdown.
Staff there began discussing pandemic collecting strategy back in March, addressing some of the unique challenges with this event. “One of them is that collecting objects at a time when these objects are desperately needed for saving lives or for other reasons in the emergency would have obviously been problematic. So swooping in and collecting a 3-D ventilator when those ventilators are urgently needed somewhere else was obviously not a great idea,” Cormier says.
The museum is also working out how to something less tangible, such as digital representations of what we are experiencing. How to collect a Zoom meeting, for instance? Or an online classroom experience? “This will be a great moment of experimentation because of the urgency of it,” says Cormier, who was born and raised in Toronto.
All museums engaged in this will be looking to come up with items, documents and photos that can provide a picture of this time – to us, and to our descendants.
“What we always like to do is project to the future. So we say, as a collecting curator now, it’s incumbent on us to be able to secure for audiences 100 years from now an accurate reflection of what [this time] was like,” says Cormier says.
“But, also I would say in the near term, all of us are going around and experiencing this pandemic in extremely fragmented ways. … So, I think there’s a huge value in the near-term to providing a cohesive, overall picture of what it was all about. So, I think there will be value in seeing [an exhibition] sooner rather than later.”
It’s unclear when visitors will walk through museum halls full of colourful murals and rainbow signs, DIY masks and life-saving ventilators – but museums are certainly already thinking about it.
“Our hope is that these letters could spark new projects or initiatives, now or in the future,” the Glenbow’s callout says. “We don’t want to collect them and lock them in a vault for the next 50 years; our goal is always to collect things that will be accessible and meaningful to our community.”
For larger institutions such as the Canadian Museum of History, a comprehensive exhibition likely won’t happen for some time. We are still living through this, after all. Collecting, accessioning, planning, curating and designing all need to happen. “It’s not too soon to think about having one, for sure; it is too soon to think about planning one,” Oliver says.
And audiences need to be ready for an exhibition.
“The key for us is we see it as an absolutely essential national event in the life of the country and we want to make sure that we cover it appropriately, document its breadth and its impact,” Oliver says. "And that, when we get around to interpreting it in online displays and physical displays and programs, we do justice to the subject, but we also do justice to the people who are going to re-experience the pandemic when they visit.”
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