Collecting in the time of coronavirus - Museums Association

Collecting in the time of coronavirus

As curators, where does our experience of the pandemic end and the collecting project begin?
Collecting Covid-19

Like many medical curators, I often find myself investigating the acquisition potential of my personal encounters with medicine, with each experience viewed through collecting goggles.

A letter arrives reminding me to attend my latest cervical cancer screening – perhaps this could be an addition to the archives; I input data into an app that tracks my menstrual cycle – maybe a digital collecting challenge; my tooth cracks and falls out requiring a temporary denture – can you ever have enough dentures in a medical collection?

But what happens when, in a matter of weeks, medicine dominates local and global conversations, seeping into our homes and work, infusing almost every aspect of our lives? Suddenly I’m confronted by an immense and overwhelming stream of collecting opportunities and also a simultaneous source of anxiety, grief, and confusion.

Weeks before coronavirus was labelled a global pandemic and the sheer enormity of the situation became clear, conversations had already begun among the medical curatorial team at London’s Science Museum about how we might collect Covid-19.

We discussed the ephemeral nature of public health messaging at airports regarding the virus and how this might be lost if we didn’t act quickly. We pursued the collection of a “failed” front cover from a national newspaper depicting the no-longer-premiered James Bond film. We asked friends and colleagues about their experiences and encounters with the virus abroad. But I doubt anything could have prepared us for what was to emerge over the coming weeks.

Now, nearly two months after packing our belongings and leaving the Science Museum offices, we continue to develop and grapple with the ethical collecting of Covid-19. “Home” has become a slippery term, as has “work”. Where does my experience of the pandemic end and the collecting project begin? How does my relationship with collecting change when I cannot leave it at work at the end of the day? And when the best thing we can do to protect one another is to stay away, how then do we collect this pandemic?

The usual aspects of contemporary collecting that I love have been imbued with new and profound complexities. Done well, medical collecting is inherently personal and sensitive, but digital screens and distance present unique challenges to this human-centred way of working.

Where we might usually organise a site visit and one-to-one chat with a potential donor centred around the visual and tactile (through gloved-hands) experience of investigating an object, we must now carefully consider how to make contact in a time when people are vulnerable, anxious and often busy carrying out essential work.

I am, however, noticing small positives arising from this profoundly disruptive and challenging time. I have witnessed many genuine acts of kindness amongst colleagues. Simply asking “how are you?” has become far more meaningful.

Communication across the museum sector has reached new heights, with many taking part in collaborative discussions and approaches to collecting the pandemic.

And museums have been presented with an opportunity to proactively and – as far as possible – inclusively record arguably the most globally shared medical experience of our lifetime.

Imogen Clarke is an assistant curator, medicine, at the Science Museum, London

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