Alberta museums are collecting artifacts related to the pandemic, such as photographs, hand sanitizer bottles and homemade face mask patterns, as they work to record life in the province during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Okotoks Museum and Archives, and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary are documenting the outbreak as it happens, which is known as rapid response collecting. This can include physical and digital items.
“It’s historical time in our lifetime, so I think it’s important to preserve for the future: what people are going through, the shared experience made up of individual experiences,” said Kathy Coutts of the Okotoks Museum and Archives, just south of Calgary. “It’s important to gather as many perspectives as possible to paint a picture of what this pandemic has meant to our community.”
The Okotoks museum asked residents to share their personal stories of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of photos, drawings and pieces of writing. The museum hopes these records will be a long-term asset to the community.
“We have records at the archives that date back to the Spanish flu,” Ms. Coutts said. “If no one took the time to document what they went through, we wouldn’t really understand how the community was affected by the Spanish flu.”
Royal Alberta Museum curator Julia Petrov said that setting the COVID-19 pandemic in context with previous pandemics will help people understand it better.
The Royal Alberta Museum has collected artifacts that include hand sanitizer bottles from local breweries and caution tape from closed playgrounds. The museum plans to add more items, such as patterns for homemade face masks, graduation dresses that won’t be worn and T-shirts with images of the Provincial Health Officer, Deena Hinshaw.
“When you realize that you’re living in historic times … that can be a little bit disorientating," Ms. Petrov said. “You don’t have a context for this because you haven’t experienced it before.
“We’ve been through other pandemics or waves of disease. We’ve been through other economic recessions, and we’ve dealt with it, so, hopefully, that will inspire people to maintain hope.”
The Glenbow Museum is asking Albertans to send letters. Spokeswoman Jenny Conway Fisher said she hopes people will treat the museum like a pen pal and share their everyday experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms. Conway Fisher said individual narratives are important to developing a broad historical record.
“There’s nothing that compares with that personal, first-person perspective and hearing an experience from another person’s voice,” Ms. Conway Fisher said.
In addition to traditional hand-written letters, the museum will also take e-mails and social-media messages. “That’s a whole other layer of the way people communicate now," Ms. Conway Fisher said. “Capturing that perspective will be really interesting and important as well.”
Cara Krmpotich, the director of the museum studies program at the University of Toronto, said collecting those items now will help develop a richer understanding of history. She said that being able to gather material on the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolds is “a rare opportunity” for museums.
“If we wait 'til the end, we sort of lose that richness of how we came to understand the virus, and how we came to understand how it’s changing our lives,” Prof. Krmpotich said.
“Whereas if we sort of collect in real time, as we live through it, we can actually see potentially a shift in our understanding and our response.”
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