History in Front of Us: Documenting and Collecting Current Events
Museums face the monumental task to collect, preserve, and document history as it happens. Today, many are focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests. According to the Association of Public Historians of NYS (APHNYS) “it is our duty to document not just the past but the present.”
This June, the New York State Archives, Library and Museum launched the COVID-19 Documentation Task Force. This initiative focuses on three areas: documenting the COVID-19 pandemic, providing support for cultural organizations, and a COVID-19 pandemic information clearing house. The clearing house is a database of historical societies/groups throughout NYS organized by their Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC). Visitors looking to donate can find their regional organization and get more information.
APHNYS, Documentary Heritage & Preservation Services (DHPSNY) and the NYS State Archives have published guidelines for state agencies and local governments on documenting the pandemic. The New York State Archives specifically providing guidance on records management, retention, and remote work. New York State Archives presents the New York government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a unique opportunity to “ensure the essential evidence of government activity and its impact on communities across the state is preserved and accessible for future generations.”
Rapid Response Collecting
Rapid response collecting is a strategy that allows museums to collect in response to major moments in history.This is not a new collection method but has increased in recent years as museums work to capture history as it occurs in real time. Objects, some obtained on the spot, others in the days that follow identified by curators scanning social media, television or newspapers, and putting a call out for people to share their experiences and donate objects.
Collecting Around the State
The New-York Historical Society launched their History Responds initiative to collect history as it unfolded following the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. The N-Y Historical Society uses History Responds to collect relevant materials during or immediately after major events like celebrations, natural disasters, and protests. The N-Y Historical Society seeks relevant materials during or immediately after major events like celebrations, natural disasters, and protests. Current collecting projects include the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Protests that will help tell the story of how New Yorkers are living through these new circumstances.
The Buffalo History Museum launched their “Experience History With You” initiative that asks the public to help chronicle the COVID-19 pandemic. The Museum’s public call out invites the community to contribute evidence of this time for future research, reference, projects, exhibits, and programs. The public can submit insights, feelings, and thoughts during the pandemic by sending a postcard to the museum, taking a digital survey, submitting photos, and sharing journal entries that document daily life during the pandemic.
Rachel Dworkin, Archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society wrote in a recent blog post “the mission of the Chemung County Historical Society is to collect, preserve, and share the history of our county, but history isn’t just the stuff in grandma’s attic. History is happening right now. In order to capture history in the making, we have launched the COVID Memory Project. We’re collecting oral histories, photographs, videos, diaries, and objects associated with the pandemic and protests.”
Dworkin is working to capture oral histories from health care workers, teachers, school administrators, grocery store and other essential retail workers, restaurant owners, someone working from home, someone laid off, someone who was sick, someone who lost someone, someone with small children, someone elderly, and anyone with a story to tell. Dworkin also calls for community members to become oral historians themselves by interviewing friends, neighbors, and relatives either by using a cell phone to record the video or audio or utilizing StoryCorps.
The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) launched “Curators from the Couch: #CovidStoriesNYC.” This live from home series brings MCNY curators together to speak with artists, influencers, and more from the comfort of their couches. MCNY’s initiative documents the perspectives and stories happening around New York during the COVID-19 pandemic. MCNY also invites the public to share their #CovidstoriesNY. As of June 8, more than 4,000 #CovidStoriesNYC images have been shared.
MCNY is also documenting current activism and Black Lives Matter protests. Utilizing their Instagram (@museumofcityny), MCNY is calling for New Yorkers to shares images for documentation using the hashtag #ActivistNY. The Museum’s curatorial team will review the images on a rolling basis and select images that will be reposted on the Museum’s social media feed and other digital channels. While the Museum is currently not accepting physical objects, people can take photos of an object (like a protest sign) that would help the Museum’s collection to tell the story of current activism or COVID-19 in New York to future generations, and email it to the collections team. This social media campaign coincides with MCNY’s ongoing exhibition “Activist New York” that explores histories of activism in New York City from the 1600s through today.
The Hart-Cluett Museum and the Arts Center in Troy, NY partnered to preserve and document the local response to the Troy Rally for Black Lives that transformed Troy’s downtown into a “plywood canvas of art and living history.” In the days following the rally, curators from the Hart-Cluett Museum and the Arts Center worked together to reach out to businesses who had plywood art in order to document and save them as artifacts. Business and building owners were contacted through letters and word of mouth to collect the large plywood panels, in addition to working to identify the artists and asking what they want done with their work.
The Queens Memory Project learned in late March that there was a growing community interest to collect and archive stories of life in the epicenter of the pandemic. By April 9, the Queens Memory Project had set up a public project page to gather submissions.
The Queens Memory COVID-19 Project is collecting first person stories of life in the epicenter of the pandemic. Each submission becomes part of the archives at Queens College and Queens Public Library and shared by their tech partner Urban Archive (who created a user generated submission portal for the project).
“Going forward we are going to have this activated and new energized group of volunteers who are out in the community, who know about us, and know that we will preserve the materials that they create if they create them,” said Natalie Milbrodt, Coordinator and Metadata Services director for Queens Memory. Since the start of this project, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of volunteers. People who want to share the stories behind the statistics and help amplify underrepresented communities in this pandemic.
“It’s been really moving to see how vulnerable people are being in this space and how honest they’re being about their experiences,” said Milbrodt. “People have been pretty raw about the challenges they’ve been facing. It’s impressive and I’ve really appreciated that.”
This article first appeared on nysmuseums.org on June 23, 2020
Further Reading / Resources