The Henry Ford on nationwide mission to gather COVID-19 artifacts
For the first time in its decades of collecting, The Henry Ford is gathering objects, photographs and archival materials during a national crisis — the coronavirus pandemic — which the institution describes as “an extraordinarily significant moment in our history.”
Like other eras in American history, the pandemic represents a time of innovation and ingenuity, aspects of the crisis The Henry Ford would like to document, following its mission of collecting materials on the country’s innovative past to “inspire a better future.” That mission is well-represented in its extensive collection of Americana in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and among the historic buildings in Greenfield Village.
The collecting initiative will focus on how Americans have responded to the continually changing crisis with resilience, creativity and innovative approaches.
“The Henry Ford’s collections have always documented America’s creative genius and can-do spirit, and now, during this unprecedented crisis, we are seeing this in action every day,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford. “It’s invaluable that we capture and collect these stories now to inspire others to problem solve, learn from mistakes and help shape a brighter future.”
The Dearborn institution is looking for a wide range of materials, including items that have impacted everyday life during the past three months. They include the actual items or images of people making and wearing face masks, creating sidewalk chalk art, making their own bread, and not being able to find toilet paper or hand sanitizer at grocery stores. The museum is also looking to document efforts to connect virtually, on Zoom and other social media, to celebrate milestones, holidays and events.
“By collecting during this time, we are able to acquire items that are more ephemeral and tell a deeper story. We’re able to track how things have changed over time, and how people have responded,” Donna Braden, The Henry Ford’s senior curator and curator of public life. “In these months alone, so much has changed.”
Even the ways people have used humor to cope during the pandemic has changed — the cartoons, memes and gifs seen online in April, would not be as easy to find if museum officials waited six months to collect, she noted.
Other collection examples include items created by businesses shifting to produce medical products, tools and products designed to address the crisis; as well as items documenting grass-roots efforts to thank essential workers, teachers and medical employees, and to acknowledge graduates.
The Henry Ford is also seeking materials from protesters, including posters, photos, or even materials created to share digitally to mobilize people.
While chronicling aspects of a health pandemic are new for The Henry Ford, it’s not uncommon for local and state museums or medically centered museums to collect material related to a health pandemic or other health crises, said Toni Kiser, board vice president of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists, an organization of museum professionals with about 1,200 members.
She noted, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a museum and up until recently was collecting materials related to the eradication of polio. It was slated to open an exhibit last month exploring the global impact of influenza viruses since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened an exhibit, “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” two years ago to mark the anniversary of the Spanish flu outbreak. The exhibit shows how viruses can spread from animals to people, why some outbreaks become epidemics and how people around the globe work together to stop them. Although the museum is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, the exhibit will continue through May 2021.
The Henry Ford isn’t the only Michigan organization striving to document aspects of the COVID-19 crisis.
The National Writers Series, which brings nationally known authors to Traverse City for public conversations, switched to free virtual events and began collecting online diary entries from adults and children almost as soon as the statewide shutdown began. The effort was inspired by executive director Anne Stanton’s family history; she had a great uncle who, coincidentally, died during the Spanish influenza in 1918, but she never knew the exact circumstances of his death.
“My not knowing the story inspired this website. I decided that the coronavirus was historic, the most historic event in most of our lifetimes,” said Stanton, adding the NWS, if it’s about anything, is telling stories as a way to <FZ,1,0,11>cope and learn from each other. “We wanted people to tell their story, not in hindsight, but as it was actually happening. This way, their experience would be etched in history with no guessing or vague memories of an older relative.”
So far, the nonprofit organization has collected 156 submissions; they are posted on www.LifeintheTimeofVirus.org.
This is not the first time The Henry Ford has collected materials from the recent past. The museum gathered items from the 2017 Women’s March and during Y2K, when the date changes during the last turn of the century were expected to create computer havoc around the globe.
“We’ve never done anything quite to this extent, especially not during a national crisis. It’s not easy for museums to collect in the now, but that’s changing. As a curator, you don’t always know what specifically will have a lasting significance and reflect this moment in history. With many other museums working to capture this unprecedented time, we had to distinguish how our collection would reflect our mission, and be unique to us, as an organization,” Braden said.
Traditionally, collecting items from the past allows curators to reflect and identify materials and documents that will have a lasting significance.
“When you collect in the now, everything is constantly changing,” Braden said. “In the beginning, we really debated if we should wait and identify what would be the most important aspects from this time period, and then collect versus collecting through it.”
The Henry For has been “unofficially” collecting since day one of the pandemic, but expects this effort to be ongoing. Because The Henry Ford complex is closed until at least June 28, museum officials have not been able to assess what has already been collected.
“When we can physically all get together and go over what we’ve collected so far, we then will be able to better identify what holes that we will need to proactively fill-in,” Braden said. “This will likely be a big part of our collecting over the course of the next year.”
The museum, she noted, is constantly collecting, so if someone comes in 20 years from now and offers something that fills a need within this collection plan, “we will certainly still consider it.”
At this time, The Henry Ford has no plans to put the collection on exhibit, but that decision could change in the future. Museum staff will work to get materials digitalized and they will be housed in its extensive collections.
“We have never initiated anything like this — in terms of a health crisis,” Braden said. “For most of us, we’ve never experienced anything quite like this before, which is why it’s important to document. That way, we can learn from it and help inspire a better future”
Because of social distancing, The Henry Ford is currently unable to accept items in person. For information on how to contribute to the collection, visit: www.thehenryford.org/covid-19-collections.
For free virtual events with the National Writers Series, go to www.nationalwritersseries.org.
To submit a diary entry about your experience during the pandemic, go to: www.LifeintheTimeofVirus.org.