The Race to Collect COVID Ephemera Before It’s HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: New York Historical Society, archives, primary sources, COVID-19, ephemera
The New-York Historical Society preserves artifacts of historic significance, many displayed in its museum, on Central Park West. Its collection includes a Constitution-ratification-parade banner, from 1788, carried by the Society of Pewterers; a draft wheel from the Civil War; a women’s-suffrage pennant; and, from the twenty-first century, “some wonderful pussy hats,” Margi Hofer, the museum’s director, said recently. Last year, on March 13th, as Americans began to restructure daily life in response to covid-19, one curator, Rebecca Klassen, had an idea. After seeing an Instagram post of a bottle of hand sanitizer with the caption “Liquid gold,” she sent Hofer a note. “That was the first acknowledgment that a historic event was upon us,” Hofer said.
The History Responds initiative, which the Society’s former president Kenneth T. Jackson created the week of September 11, 2001, documents history as it happens. Hofer said, “Ken Jackson called an all-staff meeting and said, ‘This is the most historic moment that most of us will live through. And it is incumbent upon us as a history institution to collect.’ ” Employees gathered dozens of items: a venetian blind that Jackson found in a tree in the St. Paul’s Chapel cemetery, a singed knife and spoon from a rooftop next to Ground Zero, a mangled desk clock with hands stopped at 9:04 a.m. They have since gathered objects related to Occupy Wall Street, the climate strike, and Black Lives Matter.
By early April, the initiative had ramped up its pandemic-collecting efforts and invited the public to help. “The first masks we collected were in the context of the early P.P.E. shortage—homemade masks for medical professionals,” Hofer said. Then: “hand-sanitizer bottles, from distilleries that had pivoted their business from whiskey”; hastily scrawled store-closure signs; a rock, cheerfully painted by a young boy and his mother in Queens and left on a neighbor’s doorstep; a T-shirt reading “I Danced at Club Quarantine”; a portrait, by the street artist SacSix, of Dr. Fauci as Spock, giving a Vulcan salute, his palm reading “wash ’em.” In the summer, two crises coincided after the murder of George Floyd, and the initiative intensified its Black Lives Matter collecting, including photographs, by Bob Gore, of masked protesters. In one, a woman holds up a B.L.M. sign from behind her apartment window.
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