Records of the Pandemic – Collecting Covid

Editors | 23 March 2021

In terms of its scale and duration, the current Covid 19 pandemic presents a ‘game-changing’ moment in world history. One question many of us are asking ourselves is how will we remember it in the future, once it’s all over. What can museums like the Deutsches Historisches Museum do now to help us remember this situation in years to come?

First of all, one of the key tasks of any museum is collecting and preserving objects. With regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, the DHM has been busy doing both these things ever since spring 2020, when the number of cases in Germany started increasing exponentially and the German government took the drastic decision to enact the first nationwide shutdown. We thought it was crucial for us to make accessions of objects reflecting typical experiences with the potential and power to document this moment in time.

What made their way into the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum were exhibits that caught the eye of staff and were plucked from life in the ‘new normal’, along with some objects that were specifically commissioned or purchased, and some that were offered or sent in to the museum by members of the public. One challenge has been sifting through the sheer array of possible exhibits and selecting those that can show future museum visitors how everyday life changed as a result of the pandemic, in Germany but also internationally. The range of objects is enormous, running from Christmas tree decorations in the form of icosahedral virus particles (representing last year’s low-key Christmas celebrations), to social awareness campaign posters against domestic violence, which increased sharply during life under lockdown.

Furthermore, Corona has changed the way we look at many objects already in the various collection departments at the DHM and how they are studied and framed by historians. Curators quickly asked themselves whether there were objects in the collection that speak of earlier pandemics and epidemics such as the plague (or Black Death) or the so-called ‘Spanish flu’? To what extent are perennial topics like ‘hygiene’ and ‘medical progress’ conveyed by collection objects?

Other functions of a museum include the study and presentation of testaments of human history – in both material and immaterial form – and knowledge transfer through public engagement. The curatorial team at the DHM will thus be spending the coming months and years analysing the collected ‘Corona objects’. We can also be sure that future exhibitions, including those held generations from now, will draw on the objects now being collected about the pandemic.

In this series, the heads of each collection present a selection of new accessions. The curators reveal how the objects reflect this historical moment and how history museums also safeguard contemporary phenomena and ephemera for future generations.

If you would like to support the Deutsches Historisches Museum and own objects of likely interest, we would be happy to hear from you. Please do not send us any unsolicited material without getting in touch with the museum first.