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Historical societies across the U.S. are crowdsourcing pandemic time capsules

The Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston is among the many organizations soliciting submissions for pandemic time capsules. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)
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Last week as I stopped by my local sushi restaurant to pick up a to-go order, I felt awed by the science fiction nature of the plastic wall the restaurateurs had built to separate us. The waitress opened a transparent pass-through, like the cupboard where you put your sample in the bathroom at the lab, to set down the bagged food. After she closed it, I picked up the bag on my side. Both of us were masked, and the stakes seemed high: It felt like “2001: A Space Odyssey” meets spider roll. As I sat in my car, stunned by the experience, I thought, “I wish I’d taken a picture.”

We’re living through history. Just as we pore over photographs and narratives of people in the past, those in the future will be curious about what we’re doing right now, sheltered at home or on the front lines. We may have a responsibility to document our experiences, even if just for our own descendants.

For a larger audience, who better to collect and curate such stories than the folks who have been doing it all along, the historical societies across the nation? Here’s a look at a few that are working to preserve today’s anecdotal evidence for tomorrow.

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The California Historical Society in San Francisco has created an online portal for people to share their tales, called “Tell Your Story — California During the Time of COVID-19.”

Such documentation is hardly surprising — this newspaper hosts a beautiful and poignant oral history gathering site — but as director of exhibitions Erin Garcia points out, the project has created a deeper meaning than just preserving history. “We didn’t anticipate that it’s creating an outlet for people. They feel isolated and have things to get off their chests,” Garcia says. “People confide in us.”

She says that by early June, the society should be able to put up a digital gallery of images and associated stories. Hundreds have submitted these already, and Garcia says the society will post 24 to 36 at a time. “Sometimes the stories are very personal; sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes I want to cry when I read them.” One entry she found insightful was from a young woman who wrote about how although throughout her adult life the United States has been at war, she never felt it touched her directly. “And now she feels like she’s part of a war effort, like with World War II’s victory gardens,” Garcia says.

The society is accustomed to collecting personal ephemera, such as letters from the California Gold Rush and the 1906 earthquake and fire. “These pandemic photos and stories will become primary source material for researchers in the future studying this moment,” Garcia says.

The response from the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis is called “Telling Your Story: Documenting COVID-19 in Indiana.” President and chief executive Jody Blankenship says: “We’ve been doing this since 1830. We have 8 million items in our collections — we know how to do this.”

With a team of 30 archivists, the society is constantly collecting Indiana history. “In the moment, you think something’s important, and then we learn with perspective that it wasn’t,” Blankenship says. “By constantly revisiting the past, we look at information to determine what really mattered and what didn’t.” The society launched its collecting initiative the same day its building closed because of covid-19, March 24.

Blankenship says the society is collecting “anything flat”: photographs, papers, videos, Shakespearean sonnets written by kids. While residents are asked to identify what their object is and why it has meaning, archivists add broader context to the narrative as well as searchability by cataloguing it and assigning it a number.

“One of our most compelling stories is about a couple who got married, and an asymptomatic guest came to the wedding. By the time the couple was in Hawaii, they were sick,” he says. They were moved from their honeymoon resort to a health department facility in a different location, he continues, adding that the couple represented the first covid-19 cases in Kauai.

“We will encounter things like this again,” he says. “Odds are, there will be another pandemic. We’ll look back at this time to know how to react, whether to open early or late; these examples will guide us. We don’t know what the answers are.”

At the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, a virtual time capsule is underway called “Experiencing History: Collecting Materials Related to the Coronavirus and Covid-19 Response.” Hundreds of submissions have already been received, and chief archivist Matt Strauss says that although staff members are working from home, they meet regularly on Microsoft Teams to discuss how to collect materials from the pandemic.

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He’s looking forward to reaching out for physical objects once social distancing is over. “We have local companies here that are making ventilators and masks, distilleries that converted to making hand sanitizer, two long-standing restaurants that had to close already,” he says.

“Folks are readjusting to life and continuing to celebrate Passover and Easter,” Strauss says. “We have a photograph of an Easter Bunny wearing a respirator.” The center is in the collecting phase now and will catalogue materials to make them accessible in the future.

Strauss made an important point, repeated by other historians, that as a nation we don’t have much material on the 1918 influenza epidemic that similarly upended this country. “We don’t want that to repeat,” he says. “We’ll see a wealth of different materials that illustrate what life was like during a pandemic in western Pennsylvania.”

COVID-19 in Georgia: Collecting the Stories of Georgians During the Pandemic of 2020” is the project at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. Communications director Pattye Meagher says this is nothing new: “At the core of everything we do, we are a collecting institution. It’s our mission to collect, examine and teach Georgia history. It’s as important to collect now as it has ever been since our founding in 1839.”

Meagher says that while people are still largely sheltered in place, digital items such as photos, scans of drawings, poetry and blog posts can be sent through the online portal. But she’s also interested in waiting for materials from people who can’t currently respond: hospital workers, first responders, elected officials. “Right now they’re in it, living it every day,” she says. “Their stories will come to us later. They have an opportunity to step back and really start to process it.” She’s also looking forward to the day when it’s safe to receive physical objects, such as signage from businesses.

For her, one of the most fascinating submissions so far has been an illustration. “It’s like a cartoon storyboard of how one family held Passover Seder on Zoom,” Meagher says. “She took the time to draw it instead of just screen-shotting it. It’s just so precious.”

The society is still receiving items from both world wars and even the Civil War. “As people are discarding stuff and cleaning out a home, they call us,” Meagher says. The rare uniform found in an attic seems scant compared with the multitude of images shot by cellphones. “You can go through the albums of ancestors and hand over a box,” she says. “But not many people will want to go through someone’s cloud drive.”

The society has been collecting pandemic experiences for only a few weeks and has shared some on social media, but it won’t be presenting the material until staff members are back in the office. “It’s a project I feel passionate about,” she says. “There’s 8 billion people in the world, and every single one of them has a story about how this affected them. While similar, no two stories will be the same.”

The Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston has launched a project titled “Witness to History: What Are Your COVID-19 Experiences?” It posts weekly prompts to help spur writers, such as, “How do you feel our government has handled COVID-19?” The project page on the society’s website notes that in 1798, the society’s founder reached out to Paul Revere to get his take on that famous midnight ride, and adds, “Now it is your turn.”

President Catherine Allgor says: “The great thing about historical societies nowadays is that we don’t wait for it to become history. We collect in the present, and this seemed like a historical moment.” Besides the prompts, the society encourages people to write in journals — Allgor says posts on Twitter and Instagram are a form of journaling. At her site, “You have to register [to provide materials] and give us permission to use the material because we want to accession it into our collection.”

She says, “In 20, 50, 100 years, when people are researching the pandemic of 2020, if you participate in our project, you are literally creating history.” She too hinted at the cathartic nature of being involved. “I’ve been struck by how freely people admitted to their emotions. This is an outlet where people can express thoughts and fears that we don’t want to burden our loved ones with.”

Each of the historians I spoke with seemed very aware of their important role in preservation. “I’m so proud of my sister historical societies, libraries and museums,” said Allgor. “We have one big job, and that is to be culturally relevant to our communities.”

Mailman is a writer based in California. Find her on Twitter: @ErikaMailman

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