Responding to the pandemic: How are museums collecting coronavirus-related material?

Since the outbreak of covid-19 the world has experienced an unprecedented level of change. In the UK nearly 20,000 individuals have lost their lives to the virus, a nationwide lockdown has been imposed, and the economy has been severely hit. Yet the good in human nature is still managing to shine through; a 99-year-old veteran raised £28 million for the NHS, an extraordinary one million people signed up to volunteer schemes, and children’s artworks of rainbows have brightened up windows all over the UK.

The global crisis will doubtlessly make its mark on history. So, how and when should it be represented in our cultural institutions?

In a recent announcement, the UK Museums Association outlined the “respectful, sensitive and ethical” approaches museums should be taking when responding to staff and collecting coronavirus-related material. “Whilst it’s important that museums record this challenging period which is having an impact on the whole of society on an international scale, we clearly need to be approaching contemporary collecting with sensitivity and respect,” asserted Sharon Heal, the Director of the Museums Association.

Heal’s statement urged museums to “uphold the highest levels of integrity” whilst being open with the public and its employees. Considerable thought should also be given when interpreting objects and digital items in order to respect people’s emotions.

London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is holding back on its contemporary collecting for the time being. Senior Curator of the V&A’s Rapid Response collecting programme, Corinna Gardner, said they were “observing and interrogating” the situation before deciding what design objects “speak of the moment.”

Rather than collecting physical objects, some museums are collecting stories by asking the public about their thoughts, feelings and activities during lockdown. “I think it feels like we all need to be collecting now, but if I’ve learnt anything from collecting Brexit, it’s that people know they’re living through a historically significant moment, and will most likely still have this stuff when it comes to an end,” remarked Sam Jenkins, Collections Officer at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. “Slowing down and thinking through things won’t mean we miss out on collecting.”

Meanwhile, the Science Museum in London has created a coronavirus collecting programme. Material amassed by the museum on behalf of the nation will act “as a record of the medical, scientific and cultural responses to the outbreak.”

The collection will include hand sanitiser, social distancing posters, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s letter to all UK households about the outbreak, and even the experimental magnets that became accidentally stuck up a scientist’s nose as he attempted to invent an anti-virus device. While some items are already being stored in the museum, others will be collected from donor’s homes when it becomes safe to do so.

It is unclear when and if the museum will put these objects on display. A spokeswoman for the organisation explained that “indeed, we have not talked about a timeframe, and in any event the timing would reflect public appetite.”

Over the next few years, and beyond, UK museums and their collecting practices will need to both reflect and respect the impact of the crisis on the country. The nation’s unprecedented experiences, emotions, and opinions should be recorded for future generations, but the way in which this is approached will be incredibly important.

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