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‘What’s Safe to Do?’: NYC Museums Grapple with Preserving COVID-19 Artifacts

Remnants of the battle against the coronavirus in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Artifacts of the battle against the coronavirus in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, April 4, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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As the coronavirus crisis makes history, New York City museum curators and archivists face a quandary: How to collect items documenting the spread of contagion without spreading contagion?

“We feel a sense of urgency to preserve artifacts and ephemera before they’re thrown away and forgotten, but we’re also wondering what’s safe to do,” said Lindsay Turley, vice president of collections for the Museum of the City of New York, which, like all the city’s cultural institutions, remains shuttered.

“Until we figure out which objects can carry germs and which can’t, we’re unable to accept any physical objects at the moment,” she added.

Late last week, Turley tuned in to a webinar offered by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to learn how the museum might mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through its physical collections.

CDC epidemiologists basically urged participants to sanitize surfaces, ventilate public areas and isolate papers or books suspected of harboring the virus for 24 hours.

The instruction came as the federal government on Friday injected $50 million into American libraries and museums to expand digital access to communities as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“We have to be sensitive to the fact that a tremendous portion of the population is being affected by this in so many ways: medically, financially and emotionally,” Turley said. “So many institutions and organizations are dealing with their own internal crises. So, you know, reaching out to hospitals right now? Not what we should be doing.”

What Turley and curators, archivists and historians are doing is gathering digital materials to help tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic to future generations.

The Museum of the City of New York, for instance, created a hashtag campaign, #CovidStoriesNYC, inviting residents and workers in all five boroughs to share photos that reveal their personal experiences with the crisis. The International Center of Photography’s campaign, #ICPConcerned, has already garnered about 3,000 posts since its March 20 launch.

Chalk and Sound

Manhattan Borough Historian Robert Snyder, a professor of American studies and journalism at Rutgers University-Newark, hosted a Zoom meeting Thursday to “brainstorm” with more than 75 colleagues from the city’s academic, cultural and historical organizations about putting coronavirus in context.

“There were so many good ideas that I’m sure that it will produce all sorts of projects,” said Snyder, who has written widely about city history and served as a consultant to Ric Burns’ “New York: A Documentary Film.”

“I don’t anticipate running the Coronavirus History Project, but this meeting was really to see how we could avoid stepping on each other’s toes or duplicating efforts or wasting money,” he added.

Snyder noted that attendees compared the COVID-19 crisis to the 1918 flu pandemic and to the Great Depression, and pointed out that it would fundamentally alter the city in ways we may not yet fully appreciate.

His Ground Zero recollections are part of the Peabody Award-winning Sonic Memorial, an online soundscape and public archive created following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“In the aftermath of 9/11, people gathered in public places and there was this outpouring of grief and community and art-making,” said Snyder. “The irony is that with this one, we must not gather. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out. When we get the all-clear, how will we make sense of it all?

“Epidemics are distinct historic events, but we have to try to grasp at them while they’re taking place,” he added. “One lesson from 9/11 is to capture things as they are happening, from oral histories to ambient sound. What did it feel like to go through this at the individual level?”

He noted the need to interview grocery store clerks, cleaners, bus drivers and hospital workers “who are on the front lines in a dangerous time. We ought to have their stories as part of the record. You want the history of the event to include as many voices as possible.”

As the crisis unfolds, Snyder has already started documenting.

“On my own, I’ve been photographing the chalking on the sidewalks,” he said, referring to the upbeat messages written by children. “You know, the ones that say things like ‘Kindness is contagious’.”

Snyder also stressed the need to look at the bigger picture to consider, for instance, how the COVID-19 critical period fits into the city’s history of xenophobia.

“Blaming immigrants for bringing contagion to our shores is nothing new,” he said. “Nativism and the fear of disease have long been part of American history. And the political response to this crisis will shape how people feel about both Donald Trump and the public health system for years to come. So we have to think about that, too.”

‘We’re Just At Beginning’

Ken Cobb, principal archivist and assistant commissioner for the city Department of Records and Information Services, stressed it was “definitely not too soon to start thinking about” chronicling the pandemic.

Cobb noted that he and other members of the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York met as early as a month after 9/11 to determine which artifacts — from the “missing” posters to final telephone voicemail recordings — should be preserved.

“But 9/11 was different in that it was a finite event that in some sense was over and done with,” he said. “Now, we have no idea when this will ever end. This is a major, major thing, but I sense we’re just at the beginning.”

Since his office remains closed, Cobb has been moving emailed updates from various city agencies into electronic folders and thinking long-term.

“I’m seeing it from the standpoint of government,” Cobb said. “When the dust settles, we’ll need to talk about what we should be preserving from each of the essential services and the Office of Emergency Management. My guess is that when we’re actually allowed to meet, we’ll talk about what kinds of things we should be accessing and documenting.”

Cobb noted that technological and social changes in the two decades since 2001 had changed the very nature of curation.

“At this stage, I’m sensing that this crisis will be less artifactual,” he said. “Everybody captures everything on smartphones these days. It’s almost too much.”

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