Be part of history: Smithsonian museums are collecting artifacts from coronavirus pandemic

Be part of history: Smithsonian museums are collecting artifacts from coronavirus pandemic

Smithsonian museums are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic — but curators across the institution are hard at work collecting artifacts to best preserve this moment in time. And they need your help.

The National Museum of American History has established a task force to spearhead the effort, with the goal of assessing and documenting scientific and medical events during this period and their effects on business, work, politics and culture.

Curators will work to preserve tangible items like objects, photographs and documents that will live permanently in the museum’s collection. The museum is working with other Smithsonian entities to collaborate during this crisis, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Anacostia Community Museum.

“These materials will help future historians and visitors make sense of the challenges of the pandemic, as well as the resilient and innovative spirit of the country,” according to a statement posted on the National American History museum’s website.

Alexandra Lord, chair of the American History museum’s Medicine and Science Division, told Smithsonian Magazine that the museum has been working with the U.S. Public Health Service to determine possible items for inclusion since before the crisis began.

“The Public Health Service has a corps of over 6,000 officers who are often deployed to deal with emerging health crises, some of them work at CDC and NIH,” Lord told the magazine. “We started talking to them during the containment stage and started thinking about objects that would reflect practitioners as well as patients.”

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Such objects include personal protection equipment such as N95 respirators to homemade cloth masks. It goes without saying collecting these items right now is risky, just from a public health perspective. These will feed into a new “In Sickness and in Health” exhibition about infectious disease in America, which was in the works prior to the pandemic.

How is the museum working to collect items? It can’t accept materials while the building is closed, so curators are requesting that potential donors secure items to be considered for acquisition in the future. Members of the public can email inquiry@si.edu to suggest items, with photos or descriptions.

As for the African American Museum, curator William Pretzer told Smithsonian Magazine, “We’re going to work with local organizations without violating social distancing, to talk to members of their communities who maybe aren’t online.” The museum will work to collect diaries, oral histories, photographs and interviews, among other artifacts.

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