Since its founding in 1804, New-York Historical has often collected around major events. But it wasn’t until 2001 and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that the History Responds collecting initiative was formed. The idea was simple: History was happening all around us, so our mission as a Museum and Library was to collect and preserve as much of it as possible.
This year has given us no lack of extraordinary, tragic, and world-altering events. Even in the middle of lockdown, New-York Historical’s curators and librarians have responded as they always have: with an eye to history’s lens and the future generations who will want to understand what happened. In recent months, we’ve ramped up collecting surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that having been sweeping the nation since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. (Our efforts have been covered in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications.)
We wanted to share just a handful of the items we’ve recently acquired. Some are striking works of art, and others are as mundane as a beer bottle. All of them work in concert to tell a story. It may take years to fully understand the events of 2020. But New-York Historical will be a key resource in that endeavor.
This spring, hospitals faced dire shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). Reports of workers fashioning PPE out of garbage bags, snorkel masks, and other everyday objects filtered through the news. On March 17, the CDC issued guidance for dealing with face mask shortages, including the use of bandanas and scarves “as a last resort.” The change led to several hospital-run initiatives that marshalled volunteers to sew face masks. Word spread quickly among professional and home sewers who rushed to purchase supplies and research appropriate materials and patterns.
Groups like Masks4Medicine formed to match hospitals’ specific needs with donated fabric masks and surgical caps, as well as medical grade PPE. The organization, which ceased operations in late June, gave us a sampling of fabric masks, improvised face shields, records, and donation notes from across the country, among other items.
Pandemic Diaries Collages
While our current History Responds collecting is primarily focused on New York State, we are also collecting select items from the surrounding region. Dolores Poacelli is an artist and graphic designer who lives in Collingswood, NJ, and works out of a shared studio space in Philadelphia. Her close friend and studio mate began showing signs of illness in February, and Poacelli became concerned about the safety of going to the studio. She began making her Pandemic Diaries series of collages at home using materials at hand. The quippy, sardonic musings, in whimsical typography, about the everyday experience of quarantine and mourning get at the dislocated strangeness of 2020.
Corona Beer Bottle
For better or worse, Corona became the unofficial beer mascot for the coronavirus pandemic. In late January, jokes on social media that the beer was responsible for spreading the disease led some to believe the link had merit and resulted in the spread of misinformation. Other fake reports said drinking Corona was a cure for COVID-19. Google searches for “corona beer virus” and similar terms spiked. Surveys and news outlets reported that consumers were rejecting the beer due to the association, hurting sales. But the opposite was true. U.S. sales grew in January–February, and rose even higher during stay-at-home orders, with some drinkers enjoying the beer out of a sense of irony.
Children’s lives have been upended by school closures. Encouraged by parents, kids have participated in public life by drawing pictures to post on the front doors and windows of their homes. A notable project in that regard was the Brooklyn Quarantine Rainbow Connection, a Google map that guided families to hunt for drawings on their daily walks. While we acquired a couple of rainbow and rainbow-inspired drawings, these two drawings from Brooklyn families are wonderful in that they reflect just how aware kids can be about the reshaping of society, its rituals, and its norms.
Ten-year-old Camille and Stevie Dickinson promoted the 7 pm clap for essential workers—here more specifically as healthcare workers—in a series of drawings that plastered their front door windows. Cliona Yarish, 9 years old, describes kid protesters in her illustrated account of a Black Lives Matter protest that took place in early June at Grand Army Plaza.
Portrait of George Floyd
A common sight at many of the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City this summer has been the large-scale portraits of George Floyd painted by Artists for George. The anonymous artist behind the effort made 46 of the portraits, one a day for each year of Floyd’s life, as a gift to a protester—ideally, a Black man—at marches in June and July. He worked with Shoestring Press, a cooperative print studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to create facsimiles to distribute as well. At any given march, protesters might have spotted several of these unmistakable portraits held high above the crowd.
Black Lives Matter Sign
Longtime activist Aisha Wilson created her sign to carry at a memorial prayer service for George Floyd on June 4 at Cadman Plaza Park, Brooklyn, and took it to protests it for two weeks afterward. She knew that Floyd’s younger brother Terrence would be present at the service, and added lush artificial roses as a symbol of tribute and mourning. Below the images of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, she included simple statements about the everyday activities they were trying to do at the time they were killed.
Wilson has been a member of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by Rev. Dr. Al Sharpton, ever since the protests against the police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999. She gave her sign in memory of her maternal great grandmother, who lived in Bishopville, SC, during the 1930s, and was so brutally beaten and raped by a group of local police that she had to go to the neighboring town for surgery. Wilson recalled being told the story by her grandmother, who was profoundly affected by witnessing the trauma her mother experienced.
Protest Safety Kit
Though safety at protests is always a concern, it’s become more complicated in the age of COVID-19. Volunteers dispensing sanitizer, face masks, and other protective items have been a regular feature of the ongoing protests.
An unidentified protester handed out this bagged supply kit during the first weekend of protests in New York City. It contains two pairs of gloves, Band-Aids, alcohol prep pads, pairs of ear plugs, cough drops, a face mask, and two pamphlets with safety information.
Black Lives Matter Mural
During the first weekend of protests in early June, looting broke out in various parts of New York City, including the shopping area of SoHo. Retailers quickly boarded up their storefronts. In the weeks that followed, artists descended into the area to create murals on the plywood, giving rise to a new sense of the area as an open-air studio in a time of political and social urgency. Siblings Liam and Miya Lee painted their mural on the plywood covering Simone Rocha, a high-end women’s clothing store. They were unable to attend protests out of concern for exposing their parents to the coronavirus, but wanted to contribute to the movement. The mural’s composition and palette are a direct reference to Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV at the Art Institute of Chicago. The clouds bear the names of Black people who have been killed by the police, and the plane banner that says “Please I Can’t Breathe” refers to the work of artist Jammie Holmes, who flew planes carrying banners emblazoned with George Floyd’s last words over five cities on May 30.
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By Rebecca Klassen, associate curator at New-York Historical