Museums, historians navigate how to write history of COVID-19 with no end in sight

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the United States, the California Historical Society received call after call asking for its archive on the 1918 flu.

Researchers and journalists were looking for clues into how Americans coped in the thick of a pandemic — and what we could learn in 2020 from 1918. But the documents from the early 20th century were few and there was just one photograph in the archive to depict the entire experience.

Historians, libraries and museums now are making sure, in that way, history does not repeat itself with the coronavirus pandemic. Putting out calls to the public for mementos of their everyday, they are documenting the emotional experience of people all over the US and shaping the lasting story of this time with voices often left out of history.

And while recording the story as it unfolds is important for how it will be remembered generations from now, they hope it will be valuable to those affected by the pandemic directly.

The goal, said Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives for the University of Southern California Libraries Hugh McHarg, is to “try to get beyond the moment by moment anxieties and create this corpus of knowledge so that the community can look back in fairly short order to say these things are here for me to make meaning out of this thing I just lived through.”

How to document the history when you are in it

To make that meaningful, most archival institutions have put out a public call for digital submissions.

The call is coming from historians like those at the California Historical Society, from libraries like the ones on the campus of the University of Southern California and from museums like the Autry Museum of the American West, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Institutions are usually many years removed from the artifact they collect so they must relay on what has survived, but now the pool of material is expansive.

And they are asking for content of all types, from traditional written diary entries, essays, poems and visual artworks to the more unconventional offerings like Instagram posts and TikToks.

“We want to be as open as possible to those digital ephemera because those are really the primary sources of this pandemic,” McHarg said.

Many people document their day-to-day life on social media platforms thinking it is fleeting, but in a time as tumultuous as this, they are snapshots of real-time lived experiences.

“Whatever your emotional and creative response to this moment is, we want to make sure the folks from centuries on can extract some meaning from that experience,” he said.

The California Historical Society asks submitters to answer a set of broad questions and send in an image of what coronavirus means for them, said Frances Kaplan, Reference and Outreach Librarian for the California Historical Society. It was specifically vague, she said, to leave it in the individuals’ hands to interpret what the pandemic is really about.

“Years from now, that is what people want to look at, not just the headlines, not just the data,” Kaplan said.

The story that is unfolding

Kaplan was surprised to find that many of the submissions were very specific: small moments and disrupted regularities that came together to form a more nuanced picture than the headlines and statistics could.

To some, the best way to capture coronavirus was a view from their window. For one student, it was a picture of Minecraft on his screen. For another, it was a description of his last lunch with his mother before everything closed down (“it was at a Hawaiian burger place and we had fries”).

And that’s perfect, Kaplan said, because for a 19-year-old that might be the exact thing to strike a chord in this time.

The Autry Museum of the American West received a submission on its online form with a photograph of 6-year-old Franklin Wong’s homework: a drawing with an angry face and rain.

“I did not go anywhere because it rained all day so we playd indoors,” he wrote. “Also we did dat because the vires.”

“We want children of all kinds to share their thoughts — even if you’re in the first grade,” said Autry history curator Tyree Boyd-Patess.

But the story was different for every person.

One woman’s story of coronavirus, sent in electroncially, revolved around having a daughter who was not positive for coronavirus in hospice care. She couldn’t imagine complaining about not being able to go to a hair or nail salon.

While the end of the pandemic is hazy and officials can only make their best estimation of how it will resolve, Kaplan said she already sees pieces of the story coming together through the documents her team has archived.

Most went through a major life moment in a pandemic shutdown but clung tightly to their humor, family and community, she said. Most were struggling but found purpose and believed they were doing the right thing for their community by choosing to stay home.

But time and distance will tell the full impact on the historical record, Boyd Pates said.

“This is an unprecedented time, but we also have unprecedented resources to document, so why not meet it head on and let history do its job to let the important things rise to the surface,” he said.

More stories preserved

Capturing the story as it unfolds means the records of this time can be more inclusive.

Typically, archives are accumulated by private people and donated to institutions to catalog, contextualize and disseminate, McHarg said. But those collections often represent very limited groups of people and institutions.

The daily lives, the thoughts and feelings of the majority of the people have been lost to history.

“If you look at the typical county historical society, they tend to have over the years acquired an inordinate number of fancy wedding dresses of elites because of who founded them,” said Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History associate director of curatorial affairs Benjamin Filene. “What historians want to know now is what did ordinary people wear to work every day.”

The larger community, diverse in racial and socioeconomic identities, have historically been left out of the process of collecting history in the US, Boyd-Patess said. Without their voices, the stories historians have been able to tell or retell have been incomplete and without investment from large populations, he said.

It’s that lack of inclusion and comprehensive understanding those documenting the current pandemic hope to avoid. Kaplan, Boyd-Pates and McHarg say their institutions are highly focused on making submissions easily accessed and promoting outreach to communities that have been historically underrepresented.

“We have lost so many stories of everyday people because they weren’t collected or they weren’t given importance,” said Kaplan.

Telling the story of coronavirus in its truest form means recognizing that the experience was different for each population as well as for each individual within.

“Without this kind of documentation, a historian isn’t going to be able to look back and say this was the lived experience of a Los Angeles MTA worker during the pandemic and have that level of detail,” Hugh said. “Over the years that results in a huge gap of knowledge.”

Boyd-Pate hopes efforts like these set a precedent of how scholars can give communities — particularly communities of color — a “seat at history’s table.”

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