Tell us how the empty vials from the first Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccinations in the UK were acquired?
Vaccination is one of the success stories of science, saving millions of lives each year, so it was a no-brainer for us to be pursuing these objects. We obviously knew that the vaccine was coming and we were in conversation with the Oxford lab, with AstraZeneca, and Pfizer is one of our funders, so all the groundwork was laid down. It was then a question of knowing when was the right moment to reach out to people.
It is an ethical issue because, while we have great allies and supporters among medical professionals, frankly, no matter how important museum collections are for posterity, they are not going to be as important as the work that these guys are doing. So, should we be bothering them is a big question and this is where the comms and press teams have come in really handy. We are hugely grateful to the communications teams at Public Health England and the NHS because, even with everything that they had to do at this time of crisis, they still managed to make sure these objects were kept in a safe place and could make their way to the museum.
This Covid vaccine is, without a doubt, a moment in history and when this vial was handed over to me by the medical director of NHS England I did well up, I have to say. It was a bit of a lump in the throat moment.
Have you thought about how you will display the vials at the Medicine Galleries?
I am really keen to get the vials on display as soon as possible as I think our audiences would be really interested and pleased to see them there. The vaccination timeline is the only timeline in the entire Medicine Galleries, and I think what we are going to do is rejig that and put Covid at the end of it.
How do these acquisitions vials fit with your wider Covid collecting?
My team started collecting around Covid from late February, so before the museum closed, and this whole project has grown exponentially and is now across all the museums in the group. There have been loads of challenges – ethically and practically as well as trying to decide what not to collect and finding out what other people are doing. It has been without doubt the most challenging project of my career. Contemporary collecting is often really difficult but to do it in a pandemic is massively challenging.
How has your working life been affected by the pandemic?
I have never been one that likes working at home. My normal working pattern is that I get up very early and go into the museum. Being home the entire time has been quite difficult for all of us. In the museum there are always colleagues to bounce ideas off and, while I don’t think I ever took that for granted, I certainly miss it. But one of the things that has been a huge advantage is the impact on group working. I am now just as comfortable chatting to colleagues in Manchester or Bradford as I am those in London. I do miss showing off though – I like giving talks and getting feedback from audiences and having that two-way interaction. My cat at home does not laugh at my jokes.
Natasha McEnroe is the keeper of medicine and the Science Museum, London