March 5, 2021
Brighid Pulskamp has made hundreds of face masks for the people of the Navajo Nation. The tribe inhabits parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Pulskamp wants us to remember the story of how the Navajo weathered the pandemic. “Our people are resilient,” she told TIME for Kids. “They have always learned to adapt.”
To make sure the story is told, Pulskamp has donated masks to the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles, California. In April, the museum issued a call for face masks, family recipes, and stories about how the pandemic was affecting people’s lives.
The Autry is not alone. Museums everywhere are collecting items to capture this historic moment as it’s happening. Long after the pandemic is over, ordinary things like hand sanitizer and grocery lists will tell historians how we experienced this life-changing event.
“We tend to think history is something that happened 20, 30, 100 years ago,” says Aaron Bryant, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The museum is documenting pandemic life. “But history happens before our eyes, every single day.”
Eventually, museums hope to acquire things like medical equipment, social-distancing signs, and handwashing posters. For now, they’re mostly collecting digital artifacts, like photographs.
Maria Hagstrup is a curator at Vesthimmerlands Museum, in Denmark. When lockdown began there, in March 2020, she grabbed her camera. “I walked around my hometown, taking photos of—actually—what did not happen!” she says. In Hagstrup’s photos and in others submitted to her museum, places normally filled with people—a row of businesses, a supermarket aisle—are deserted. Where there are people, they’re several feet apart, or separated by a window.
There was a “feeling of great loneliness” everywhere, Hagstrup says. But there were lighter moments, too: “A dentist in equipment that looks like something from space,” she says. “Or people singing from their balconies.”
Some institutions are asking people to share their stories. The California Historical Society (CHS) has received personal entries from kids. Xiomara, 13, from Marina, California, described staying home during the pandemic. She has missed her grandmother. “I like to let her know that I love her and care for her,” Xiomara wrote. “I could do that through the phone, but it’s just not the same as hugging someone and spending the day with them.”
Stories like this will help future generations understand the emotional impact of the pandemic, says CHS reference librarian and archivist Frances Kaplan. “People are not shying away from personal details,” she says. “They are being extremely open.”
That’s what museums are counting on. “History is made by ordinary people and their everyday lives,” Bryant says. “Even ordinary things”—like face masks—“can reflect history in an important way.”
What’s Your Story?
How has your life changed during the pandemic? Historians want to know how people are spending their time, what challenges they face, and what brings them moments of joy.
Libraries, historical societies, and museums in your area might have websites where you can submit your account of life during the pandemic. You may also be able to share pictures of pandemic-related objects. These might include grocery lists or art projects you’ve created while at home.