What can history museums do during an epidemic? Like many institutions across the globe, the New-York Historical Society is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. And like so many New Yorkers, our curators and librarians are preoccupied with concern for their loved ones and grief over what’s happening in our beloved city.
But behind the scenes, they’re also doing what comes naturally to them: thinking about history. Since 2001 and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New-York Historical has run a program called History Responds. Its main goal is to collect objects, photographs, and ephemera from the present day for use as research sources and in future exhibitions—in essence, preserving history as it’s happening. We’ve collected from events like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2017 Women’s Marches. And as best we can, we’re collecting now.
We caught up with Rebecca Klassen, associate curator for material culture, who works on our History Responds initiative and joined us for an email exchange about what’s happening with the program. Among other things, she writes about what it’s like trying to collect objects in a time when touching things is risky and what kind of stories New-York Historical wants to be able to tell in future decades. Read on for more. —Kerrie Mitchell, content editor
Hello Rebecca! First off, can you give us a sense of how History Responds came about in the first place and how different this was from the usual tradition of collecting?
Well, New-York Historical has long collected documents, artifacts, and art reflecting contemporary events and trends. For instance, staff have regularly sought items connected to political campaigns and celebratory events in the city. As a designated initiative, History Responds took shape in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, when our president at the time, Kenneth T. Jackson, called upon staff to intensively collect around the attacks and the city’s response. This became a massive collection of objects ranging from architectural debris to clothing to letters to items left behind as memorials—some of it was given to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, while a core remains in our collection.
Since then, we’ve used the History Responds label to describe event-based collecting, often at the scene as it’s unfolding. Curators will attend protests and parades in order to locate materials. Aesthetics and physical condition play much less of a role compared to the objects we might acquire for our other collections like paintings or silver, for instance. It’s more about seizing the moment before items—and the memories associated with them—fade away.
What kinds of conversations have you and other curators been having these last few weeks? When did it hit you that we need to be preserving what’s happening right now?
Well, the landscape sure has been shifted quickly here in New York! Friday, March 13, was the first day that many of us non-public-facing staff began working from home, and it was also the day that New-York Historical closed to the public. Specific everyday goods were getting harder to come by (hello, toilet paper!), and the perceived value of things was turning upside down. A friend posted an Instagram story about her giant bottle of hand sanitizer gel with the caption “liquid gold,” and so I sent my boss, Margi Hofer, the director of the Museum division, a quick note about collecting a few objects. By that Monday, schools, bars, and restaurants were closed.
I think many of us went from not knowing anyone who had fallen ill, and maybe wondering if we were a little bit crazy for our new hand washing routines, to feeling like our worlds had suddenly become small and circumscribed and that we needed to act urgently. We curators, being fully human, are grappling with the whiplash right along with everyone else. Our conversations are evolving as we observe how the crisis is unfolding, and how that is being reflected in artifacts.
In a moment that we really want to be collecting though, we have this complicated new relationship with physical objects and the world outside our homes. Touching things and talking to people in person has become fraught. Has your household developed elaborate cleaning rituals like mine has?
Absolutely, and it’s strange to think about how quickly our rituals have changed. I’ve been thinking about all of these new objects that have become so important to my life in a way I wouldn’t have believed even two months ago. For instance, my bottle of hand sanitizer has joined my phone, keys, and wallet as an essential item to have before I leave the house. We’re staying with friends who have one of those kids’ forehead thermometers—lucky for us because thermometers are almost impossible to buy at the moment. Are these the kind of artifacts you hope to acquire?
Yes, we will be looking for objects that can help tell the story of how New Yorkers and people in the surrounding area are managing life and coping under these extraordinary circumstances. For example, out of necessity people have devised very creative personal protective equipment (PPE): some that are MacGyver style and others that verge on performance art. And I completely relate to your thermometer story. I ended up buying a smart thermometer since all others were sold out, and it seems they are playing a role in supplying national data. Future curators and researchers could look to these types of objects as tangible evidence when exploring the history of public health, culture, and technology.
We are also interested in objects that represent larger-scale efforts, like the reusable fabric masks that are now being churned out by home sewers and the solutions under development in various industries. We’re keeping tabs on the ways New Yorkers are spending their time indoors—like playing games—and how they’re creating a sense of community with things like window displays and participatory art projects. Our colleagues in the Library have asked staff to help save emailed notices and paper-based items like store closure signs, and our curator of photography is working with street photographers who are capturing the changes in public life. Our Education department has asked youth to share daily reflections.
But we’re certainly not looking to remove valuable resources right now. For one thing, all the curators are practicing social distancing. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual because we’re limited in how much on-the-ground outreach we can do. But we also don’t want to affect the public’s ability to access information or to influence outcomes or perceptions. For the most part, people are trying to survive and stay healthy and help their communities in a time of scarcity. Many are dealing with significant personal and financial loss, or will be in the near future. They’re not necessarily trying to make history, even though we all recognize this is a moment of tremendous consequence.
I can’t help thinking about future generations of historians, researchers, and museum goers who’ll be studying and writing books about the events of this spring and summer. If people are interested in helping out with your efforts, how should they reach out?
I can’t wait to be in the future, myself! We’re looking forward to the time when it’s safe to connect with potential donors and hear their stories in person. In the meantime, people can learn more about what we’re doing and how to share what they have on the History Responds web page, which will be updated as our activities evolve.