In order to preserve the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in Nebraska, nine Nebraska museums decided to start a COVID-19 documentation project.
Laura Mooney, senior objects curator for History Nebraska, said the museums wanted to document the pandemic for future generations so they could have the resources they want or need for research.
“For the pandemic in 1918, we just don’t have much because people didn’t think about collecting it. We have one mask from that time period and there’s a few photos, but just the one object,” Mooney said. “We thought, ‘We’re gonna help people out for the future,’ and really think carefully about what we can do to preserve this time in our history.”
A few months into the pandemic, Mooney said History Nebraska began reaching out on social media and through interviews to collect information and stories from the pandemic, including stories about changing businesses and people making masks.
“We wanted to show some of the struggles that people were going through, too, so we collected things like signs people created for Mother’s Day when they had to meet through windows,” Mooney said.
Each museum is collecting based on available space, so some museums can only collect stories, according to Emma Sundberg, curator for The Durham Museum in Omaha.
“We all collect very similar content, but sometimes in different media [formats,]” Sundberg said. “Some people might be better able to collect things on a digital nature because they might not have space for objects, or they might be focusing on oral histories right now.”
Sundberg said The Durham Museum is collecting objects, stories, photos and videos of people’s experiences with the pandemic. People can submit their stories online or through a handwritten letter.
“We thought it would be nice to have that personal writing, that personal touch to a letter. These days that’s not so common,” she said. “It’s definitely something I think future generations 50 or 100 years from now would be interested to see.”
Mooney said History Nebraska has collected about 200 objects from various points in the pandemic, including masks, COVID-19 testing kits, vaccine cards and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduation box.
Both Sundberg and Mooney said they have received stories from whole classrooms of students as some teachers utilized the collection project in class by having students write a digital diary or send in a handwritten letter. One of the classrooms was from an elementary school in a small town from the Sandhills.
“Some of them were living on farms and had different perspectives that way, which was really interesting,” Mooney said. “We definitely have been trying to reach out to different parts of the state to collect those different experiences and really dig through social media to try to find some of those key stories we can specifically reach out to people about.”
The Nebraska History Museum has an exhibit showcasing some of the objects History Nebraska received, according to Mooney, and there is an online database displaying some objects.
“Our plan is to try to make that all as accessible as possible so that people now and in the future can easily see what we have, do research, use images for their own research projects or papers, print media,” Mooney said.
While Mooney said History Nebraska has asked the community for help collecting in the past, this project is unlike any undertaking they have done before.
“This was definitely the biggest kind of project like this that we’ve undertaken and really made a big effort throughout the year to focus on it,” Mooney said. “We haven’t really done the digital diary thing before, that’s new to us, and we’re newly collecting borne-digital materials, so collecting digital photos and video from people’s phones. That’s been new this last year.”
Anyone in Nebraska or with a connection to Nebraska can contribute to the collection. While Sundberg said The Durham Museum is collecting with a focus on Omaha, Mooney said any Nebraskan can donate to History Nebraska as its focus is the whole state. History Nebraska is also collecting documentation of other events from the past year, including social injustice protests and elections.
Sundberg encouraged anyone from outside the bigger Nebraska cities who may be nervous about donating to a museum across the state to reach out to their county’s historical society.
“If you’re not interested in donating, they can also give advice on how to care for objects so that you’re future generations in your family can see a cotton mask that’s not eaten away by moths,” Sundberg said.
Even after the pandemic is over, Sundberg said she doesn’t see the collection ending.
“I believe all of us … are interested in this being a continual. It’s not sort of done-after-this-year, sort of project. It is certainly going to be on-going,” Sundberg said. “Heaven knows how long the pandemic will still be impacting our lives, but there are going to be significant changes throughout.”