DIY masks, hand sanitizer, street art: Canadian museums are already documenting life during COVID-19

How do you record the history of a pandemic while you're busy living through it?

How do you record the history of a pandemic while you're busy living through it?

Emily Carr student Abi Taylor finishes a painting of Dr. Bonnie Henry on a boarded up window in Vancouver on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

What can the past teach us about the present?

When coronavirus lockdown went into effect, curators at The Rooms in St. John's felt the ping of that extremely museum-y question, diving into the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

"We've done this before. We've been through pandemics before," says Kate Wolforth, acting director of museums and galleries at The Rooms, and archival examples of resourcefulness and resilience have since become a regular staple of their social-media output. 

"It's part of our job to be responding and reacting to what's going on in our community and to provide context," says Wolforth. "It's a confusing and really traumatic and troubling time. So it's our job to look back." 

They just happen to be eyeing up the future at the exact same moment.

Like other museums around the country, The Rooms is already clambering to record life during COVID-19. "Usually, museums will wait a few years and then do a survey of what's important, and then collect those objects," says Wolforth. "But we're actually doing it now." 

"The reason we decided to do that was other institutions we've seen. Many institutions are doing the same thing; many archives are doing the same thing." 

They've solicited objects and stories from the public, and are busy building databases of potential acquisitions. Cross-stitched COVID memes by a local crafter, Jaimie Feener, are their first official procurement.

Cross-stitch by Jaimie Feener. (@feenerandthread/Instagram)

At the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the staff is actively sourcing items, too. They've collected hand sanitizer bottles (sans germ-busting goo) produced by Albertan craft breweries and distilleries. They've ordered locally designed t-shirts of Dr. Deena Hinshaw for their collection and earmarked DIY scrub patterns and face masks. 

Julia Petrov, the acting head of history at the RAM, says the museum would never pursue objects still in use: "We're not going to take masks away from people that need them right now," but they're already flagging contemporary artifacts that will tell the story of COVID-19 in Alberta.

Usually, museums will wait a few years and then do a survey of what's important, and then collect those objects. But we're actually doing it now.- Kate Wolforth, acting director of museums and galleries, The Rooms

"We want to make sure that it's a local story, that it is something that gives a sense of the broader context — though obviously in a pandemic, that's not hard because literally everyone around the world is dealing with this." 

The RAM is accustomed to "rapid response collecting," she says. Generally speaking, that's the term for a special strain of museum practice: gathering items that speak to current events as they're happening. Examples might include documenting the Climate March or a royal visit, she explains. 

John Fluevog Shoes is releasing a limited edition shoe, inspired by British Columbia’s chief provincial health officer — and avid Fluevoger — Dr. Bonnie Henry. (HO-John Fluevog Shoes/Canadian Press)

The Museum of Vancouver is similarly versed in recording city life. Viviane Gosselin, director of collections and exhibitions at the MOV, says her team is pursuing several items for their collection. A pair of Fluevog's "Dr. Henry" Mary Janes — a tribute to a B.C. folk hero by a famed Vancouver designer — are on the wish list. And they're keen to collect street art, too. In countless cities around the world, locals have been painting COVID-related murals on boarded up shops. "Sometimes you have to be very quick," says Gosselin. "There are private collectors out there." 

Earlier this week, MOV launched Isolating Together, a community outreach project that asks Vancouverites to share personal quarantine stories with the museum. "Right now, it's fresh in our memory," says Gosselin. Any material they gather through the online initiative may be used in their collection and future exhibitions, she says.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is hosting a similar oral history project called Share Your Story. Since early April, they've been asking Canadians to post self-shot videos responding to a timely prompt: "What acts of kindness have lifted your spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic?"

Rhea Yates, director of digital outreach at the CMHR, says her team was developing the platform long before the virus reached Canada but fast-tracked its debut in response to the moment. Questions will change over time, she says, and submitted videos will remain in an online archive. "We wanted to start with something that people would want to share and find reassurance from in these times," she says. "We do expect that some of these stories will be retained as part of our collection at a future date."

The Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa has not yet taken action on a rapid-response collections plan, but director general Jean-Marc Blais says the institution is discussing how they'll approach the pandemic. Oral history, he says, is a focus. They'll likely interview "Canadians who have made a difference during the crisis," he says. "But we're not going to get to anybody at this stage."

"Documenting contemporary issues is always a little more complicated for historians because they don't have enough perspective," says Blais. "And so when you are in a crisis, it's even more difficult." For now, he says acquiring items won't be a priority for the CMH: "Collecting objects requires that some of our curators need to be in the field. You can't do that when you're working, like me, from your basement."

We want to get things while they're still meaningful and also while the people who used them or made them can talk about their experience.- Julia Petrov, acting head of history, Royal Alberta Museum

At the RAM, the Rooms and the MOV, however, staff are eager to capture community stories and ephemera before the Purell bottle hits the blue bin, so to speak.

"We want to get things while they're still meaningful and also while the people who used them or made them can talk about their experiences," says Petrov. "Primarily, we are really thinking about just documenting the event and then thinking about how we can interpret that later."

"We're in the thick of it," says Gosselin. "It's important to have our eyes on what makes sense. What is what is the experience of Vancouverites today? And how can we express that in terms of material culture?"

Two Calgary clothing makers and a local artist have teamed up on a line of T-shirts honouring public health officials, including Alberta's chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw (Submitted by SophieGrace and Madame Premier)

Working from home, there are certain adjustments to their process. Smaller commercial items, like a Dr. Tam T-shirt, can be ordered online and delivered to a staff member's home. For health and security reasons, other things — more valuable objects, large-scale acquisitions, loans — will have to wait for museums to open again. 

"Right now, we're just doing everything digitally," says Wolforth. Curators at the Rooms are trying virtual studio visits, for example. "All we can do is have discussions with people and form tentative lists of things," she says. "It's much more open-ended than the way we usually work."

Predicting the significance of any given object is a guessing game, as well. "There is a risk, of course, that some of those decisions might be wrong in the long run. But that could be true no matter what or when you're collecting," says Wolforth. 

What's the potential for future research? Are other institutions already collecting the same thing? ("We don't want duplication because we can do loans in the future," says Gosselin, noting the expense of storage and conservation.)

Wolforth says that the Rooms is already thinking about developing an exhibition from their community-based submissions: the poems and songs and homemade masks and crafts that they've received since opening a call for submissions. "We're hoping to have something open fairly soon after we open, wherever that happens," she says.

"Museums and art galleries are places where I think the community does look to to figure out a way forward and to help navigate this these times," says Wolforth. "That's really what we're trying to do."

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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