Thursday, 8 October 2020

Collecting Tasmanian experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic

Kirstie Ross, the Senior Curator of Cultural Heritage at TMAG has contributed this piece about her institutions' response to documenting COVID-19 in the collection.

     A sanitiser reminder outside a South Hobart pizza restaurant. Photo by K. Ross

During the first few weeks of the pandemic lockdown, I started documenting its impact on and for myself, as I walked through my neighbourhood each day last autumn.

I also began asking myself, while working from home: How do you collect history while it is happening? Or more specifically: How do you preserve the impact of a huge global medical catastrophe unleashed by a tiny virus measured in microns – that is in thousandths of a millimetre? And what meanings and significance will the material collected during the heat of such an devastating event have in the future?

I was in the middle of devising a plan that would enable TMAG to do this when things in Tasmania took a turn for the worse. In April, the state led nation in the number of reported COVID-19 cases per capita – a record it held for 11 weeks.

To me, this intensified the need to collect the pandemic while it was unfolding. The first thing I did was propose a list of themes to guide the museum’s rapid-response. 

These were:

·         Medical care

·         Self-care/health and mental well-being

·         Business and work

·         Keeping busy and occupied

·         Border control and quarantine

·         Everyday life social-distancing

Covid-19 testing sign, Hobart waterfront. Photo by K. Ross

I began by collecting what was safe and close to home. Putting aside my own random ‘collection’, I emailed colleagues for ideas and donations. I also joined forces with archivist Jennifer Jerome at Tasmanian Archives so that we could streamline and extend the reach of the state’s official pandemic collecting.

Together, we hoped to document and collect selectively the things that mattered to Tasmanians during an extraordinary period of disruption, social-distancing and voluntary self-isolation. Playing to our strengths, TMAG would collect three-dimensional material plus the personal stories linked to them while Libraries Tasmania would collect writing, ephemera, digital images, and websites.

 Libraries Tasmania and TMAG collecting project webpage.

On a webpage hosted by Libraries Tasmania, we used a single brand and put out a combined call to action. We also employed a dedicated generic email address which would help us centralise information about potential donations.This approach has worked really well for each organisation. The majority of material offered has been for the archives, but has enabled Jen to forward offers of material more suitable for a museum directly onto me.

So far, TMAG has reached its minimum objective of 12 donations, with more items waiting in the wings. As a group, they capture the experiences of children and young people, the responses of local community centres, entrepreneurial innovation, the impact of the pandemic on international and interstate travel, the community provision of handcrafted PPE, and attempts by Tasmanians to find humour in the situation.

Johnson family’s superbugs. Photo by TMAG

Surprisingly, objects related to children’s experiences have been easy to locate. This includes the four COVID-19 ‘superbugs’ constructed by young Tasmanians Clara, Sophie, Willa and Xavier Johnson. Their donation came via their grandmother, a TMAG volunteer guide. Each superbug has a common and scientific name, as well as a description of the process of eradication. Sophie’s ‘Fire Wire’ (Ignisoculii) catches the Corona by putting it into a fire. And according to her sister Willa, “Coronavirus is like cake” for her ‘Spectrum Bug’ (Numerum Unico Pedecimex).

Also unique is the countdown sign made for a ‘virus burning’ event held at the end of July at the Longley International Hotel, 24km southwest of Hobart. Mimicking a fire warning sign, this one declared the build-up towards a ceremonial burning of a large wooden coronavirus effigy, replete with the distinctive SARS-CoV-2 protrusions.

Sign-maker David Dieckfoss and the author. Photo by D. Ross

As David Dieckfoss, the maker and the donor of the sign, told the ABC, the idea was that “if we could burn this dirty, big virus it'd be good for people, and good for the pub, and good for the community”.

TMAG obviously couldn’t collect the ashes of the effigy! But the sign, which I tracked down through pub’s Facebook page, was well worth acquiring because it showed how Tasmanians could still have a laugh despite the grave global situation.
The cuddly crocheted virus donated by Jenny Sprent is also at the light-hearted end of the collecting spectrum. Jenny, who used the ‘covid19stories’ email address to make contact, crafted several of these soft toys for medical colleagues just before she started her first nursing job – on the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Hobart Hospital!

Jenny Sprent’s crocheted coronaviruses. Unknown photographer

There is still official collecting to be done, of both literal and functional objects, such as facemasks and testing kits, but this will have to wait until Tasmania’s state of emergency is lifted. But from now on the subtle – and not so subtle – impacts of the pandemic on social interaction, public spaces, and everyday life will undoubtedly be factored into the way we collect history at TMAG.

Thankyou Kirstie. I hope this blog will be hearing from you again. Anyone wanting to write their museum story simply email us.