“At any given moment, a museum is thinking about what they can collect now for the future,” said Joanna Church, the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s director of collections and exhibits.
The museum is asking Jewish Baltimore for anecdotes, objects, and reflections on the pandemic for what could be an exhibit their great-grandchildren may appreciate.
Even before the lockdowns, Church had keenly started to collect news articles about the pandemic and its effects.
In March, before the Jewish museum’s staff had gone home, Sol Levinson & Bros. sent a jarring email. It announced that funerals must adhere to strict social distancing rules.
“My first thought was that that was so sad,” Church said. She imagined that being close to loved ones was, more than ever, vital at a funeral. “Then, my second thought was we need to record this. So I asked staff to forward me newsletters. Things were changing so quickly. We’ve been saving those; I’ve been printing them out.”
It started with written letters from congregations. As the coronavirus spread, she added city and state newsletters to track changes. When synagogues made “closed” announcements online, she printed those out.
To include the lay community, Church then created a Google form in May for people to share their own stories. Unfortunately, this proved to be a technical challenge. So the museum started to offer online writing workshops two weeks ago to prompt reflections.
Additionally, the museum will partner with Jewish Women’s Archive to offer a phone app where people can record oral stories. Community members can also email their personal chronicles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of June 22, the museum had collected a dozen accounts, but it needs more. Church hasn’t received any artifacts yet, but she would love to have a future exhibit include face masks, “closed” signs, or other objects that mark the time period. Most of those objects are still in use, though.
So far, the accounts tell stories of how celebrations have been adapted. Church noted that many seem to have a theme of hope. People want to find a silver lining.
For Church, the silver lining is that she is able to collect all this digitally. “I myself am working from home 45 miles away, but technology does make it possible for us to stay connected.”
She is happy that the Jewish Museum can offer these memories for future researchers, visitors, and her own successor.
“I hope a future me will find it interesting,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a good record but along with other museums I wanted to get our own membership and audience’s personal feelings.”
Church imagines people in the future will be impressed.
“I suspect one thing that might surprise future generations is people in 2050 might wonder, ‘How did they do that without holograms?’ We think we’re in such a good position, but there might be something totally lacking,” she said. “The future might be blown away by how we survived without it.”
Even more important, future museum-goers will be able to learn from the experiences of people going through the pandemic now.
“We’ll be able to convey a sense of continuity, just like people are finding information about the 1918 pandemic,” Church said. “It’s new to us, but there are common threads we can look through and take lessons from. So I hope that in 50 or 100 years people will learn these stories but also are like, ‘Oh, that’s why Great Aunt Susie washed her hands every 20 seconds!’”
The community will soon see these mementos and stories on social media, somewhat like how the museum shares archival photos on Twitter.
“There’s a lot of different experiences happening right now. … For some it’s an inconvenience and others it’s a terrible time,” Church said. Nonetheless, the community will get through it.