It’s too early for US museums to be recording the pandemic


A general view of the Autry Museum of the American West at Griffith Park. GC Images

In late April, as the coronavirus outbreak continued its inexorable spread, a museum in Los Angeles put out a remarkable call. It asked communities in the western United States — the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and the west coast — to help “identify and preserve items of historical and cultural significance during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The Autry Museum explained that it saw history as “ever-present” and wanted to preserve “this moment”. Meanwhile, similar initiatives were launched by several other museums and historical societies across America. From New York city, badly hit by the virus, to Bozeman in Montana, which is not, curators have begun to try and record an unprecedented event and its impact on the human psyche, creativity and connectedness.

It is a worthy endeavour, but there are some questions about the timing. How valid is it to capture a moment in time even as we live through it? Is it not premature to seek to depict an event while it is under way? Does distance — in time — provide necessary perspective? If history is the study of the past and a museum an institution that conserves artefacts that illuminate the past, should pandemic-era collections not wait for the pandemic to be over? Really, can one even begin to tell a story before it has ended?

Some of these concerns are already being raised by scholars. Stanford University’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy stresses that the goal of Covid-themed museums and collections should be to inform people, “not just tickling their fancy”. To be successful, he says, they need to “provide context and enable future visitors to understand the tenor and temper of the times, including inequities, racial and otherwise”.

Fair enough, but is that even possible right now? The effects of the twin burdens of disease and bigotry are yet to be wholly understood in relation to certain groups, such as native Americans and east Asians in the US and poor migrant workers in India. With museums seeking everyone’s memories (and everyday objects), there is a risk that everything becomes an artefact and the largest group of contributors are the usual suspects, people who are not “documentarily inarticulate”, in the words of American cultural studies professor Thomas J Schlereth.

At this point in the coronavirus crisis, we do not even know why Covid-19 appears deadlier in the US and Europe than in Asia and Africa, so it is a moot point that any museum collection would be able to properly explore the intersection of material culture from the pandemic and its larger constellations of meaning for humankind.

It could be argued that the decade it took to put together different perspectives for the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York provided the depth required for such an emotionally freighted exercise. So too the very many decades before the first Holocaust Museum came into being. But it may be perilous too, as Mr Kennedy warns, in “waiting too long” to memorialise the past.

The Partition Museum in Amritsar is a case in point. It opened its doors in 2016, nearly 70 years after the partition of India, the birth of Pakistan and the largest mass migration in human history. Established as a result of an initiative driven by British Indian author Kishwar Desai, it brought together family objects, tales of separation across the border and personal accounts of trauma and tremendous resolve, as well as art defined by partition.

The museum, the first of its kind, fills as it says, “a void”. It calls itself a “people’s museum” and while it is considered a success and a template for other such collections, the gap between its establishment and the event it memorialises is rather too long. In the intervening period, many storytellers we should have heard may have passed and countless artefacts lost, all of which would help shine a light on one of the defining moments in the history of the subcontinent.

The fact that Indian and Pakistani official institutions were unable or unwilling, for the best part of a century, to preserve material relics in order to tell a meaningful story of partition is lamentable. But the rush in the US to build pandemic-era collections is also troubling, albeit in a different way.

The precipitate move to preserve every bit of life during the pandemic may point to a worrying tendency diagnosed by the renowned historian David Lowenthal some 30 years ago.

Writing in Perspecta, the peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Yale School of Architecture, he lamented “the mania for memorabilia…the rampant cult of preservation…[the] wider modern preoccupation with the past”. New films continually reprise older ones, he wrote, the search for roots swamps the genealogical archives and reverence is lavished on oral histories. It all comes down to “disappointed expectations of progress and looming fears of decline and impending catastrophe”, the professor added, and this perennial nostalgia means that unlike our ancestors, who saved “only grand heroic treasures; today everything…is saved”.

The argument is clear. Lowenthal, who wrote the groundbreaking book The Past is a Foreign Country in 1985, led a strand of cultural-historical thought that believed in liberating the present from obsessively salvaged — and saleable — relics of the past. The implication is that the modern cult of preservation may sometimes actually prevent us from contemplating the imperishable, non-physical elements of our shared experience.

So, the pandemic era may best be considered as a museum piece in the post-pandemic moment. That will be the time when uniquely patterned masks, Zoom invitations, toilet paper mark-ups, wildlife in city spaces, quarantine poems, lockdown love stories and other such curiosities can become objects for contemplation.

Originally published at