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How The Smithsonian Documents 'Cascading Crises' — The Pandemic And Racial Reckoning — As It Hap

The first five-dose vial
of Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (The Smithsonian Institute/Northwell Health)
The first five-dose vial of Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (The Smithsonian Institute/Northwell Health)

Someday, the pandemic will be history. Museum curators are already preparing for that moment.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has been documenting the coronavirus in real time. The museum acquired the empty Pfizer-BioNtech vial that contained the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S.

New York nurse Sandra Lindsay was inoculated with that dose. Her vaccination record card, scrubs and hospital ID badge are part of the museum’s collection, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s personal 3D SARS-CoV-2 model.

Anthea Hartig, the museum’s director, says the Smithsonian wasted no time assembling a rapid response team when the COVID-19 crisis hit. She says historians at the museum could sense they were living “in the gristmill of history” and got to work immediately.

“We set out to assess and document simultaneously the scientific and medical events, as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics, culture, labor [and] gender,” she says.

The team’s “guiding philosophy” put community engagement at the center of their collection, Hartig says.

A special email address was created for people to submit items, such as businesses’ closing signs, to “get at that which is most ephemeral,” she says. These items help capture the essence of an unprecedented historical period not just for the coming years, but for generations to come, she explains.


Curators quickly realized “cascading crises” were happening at once after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May 2020, Hartig says. From then on, she says their rapid response team started to frame their collection as a “number of pandemics, especially viral and racial.”

The team documented the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically through the lens of Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., where a new street sign honoring the racial justice movement was erected under Mayor Muriel Bowser. A range of protests signs were also collected from BLM demonstrations, she says.

At the same time, the museum also had eyes on the 2020 presidential election.

“Then we tried to make as much sense of it as we could as an aggregate, knowing that we won’t be able to make full sense of it, that we will need a bit of time,” she says, “but nor did we want to hide behind the curtain that sometimes historians do and say, ‘oh, we’ll wait 50 years to see if it’s historic.’ ”

Hartig and her team are gathering items live as events unfold. She says before the pandemic started, they had just put the final touches on new strategic, interpretive and collecting plans.

And while that may sound “boring,” she says these plans positioned the team to think critically about the intersectionality of their work, how different peoples, businesses and organizations shape the world we live in, and how the past is not inevitable, but rather the result of choices that people make.

“If you see it in people’s choices that they make every day, it does help you understand then a little bit more on how to collect in the moment — making this history alive and vibrant and also making sure that people have ways to see themselves reflected in it,” she says.

Amid the number of items that the museum is vying for in their collection, Hartig says they did accumulate a special banner from a march in San Francisco’s Chinatown that reads “fight the virus, not the people” in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

This banner, she says, resonates powerfully for her in the current moment.

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.