Detroit Historical Museum collecting coronavirus oral histories

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The COVID-19 pandemic may be just a few months old in the greater Detroit area, but the city's principal memory box is already collecting oral histories and planning a memorial garden.

The Detroit Historical Museum has launched  "DETROIT RESPONDS: Stories from the time of Covid-19," encouraging people on its website and social media to share their experiences -- or to memorialize a loved one who fell to the disease. It's not just for the famous.

"We want to make sure we have the stories from both notable and regular Detroiters," said Elana Rugh, museum executive director and CEO.

Detroit Historical Society President and CEO Elana Rugh

"Obviously we want to get an oral history from the mayor as well as cultural leaders. But it’s everybody's story, too," she added, whether you're struggling on unemployment or trying to cope with all the kids at home now that schools are closed.

To get the program up and running, board member Sarah McClure and her husband Chip contributed $25,000 to the project.

"It's important to collect these stories," said McClure, who chairs the board's committee on facilities and capital projects. "And the museum has the expertise and knowledge to archive them correctly for future generations."

Recognizing as well that most people haven't been able to publicly grieve their losses, what with sharp limits on funerals, the museum has established a memorial rock garden in planters facing Woodward Avenue. Metro Detroiters are encouraged to paint a stone dedicated to someone who died.

The Detroit Historical Museum

"Do what you want to do," said Rugh. "Paint a stone with a flower on it or somebody’s name." To draw attention to the project, the museum will put out explanatory signage and a banner.

The garden's already gotten a start, with staff members contributing their own memorial rocks.

As it happens, an early death to covid slammed the museum hard. Marlowe Stoudamire, who directed its "Detroit 67" oral-history project and exhibition and had just been named the museum's Entrepreneur in Residence, died on Mar. 24. He was just 43.

Curators hope that by starting the project now, they'll be able to collect the sharpest memories.

"The decision was inspired by our experiences with the 'Detroit 67' project," said Assistant Curator Billy Wall-Winkel. "We wanted to get critical voices talking about their experiences, and didn’t want to wait 30 years when memories are fuzzy."

Anyone is welcome to contribute their story by visiting and clicking on the "Detroit Responds" link. The publicly available, searchable database of oral histories will be permanently archived by the museum, with each contribution getting its own Library of Congress tag.

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