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How Niagara museums plan to tell the story of COVID-19 50 to 100 years from now

A number of Ontario museums are working overtime to collect artifacts such as social distancing signs and multimedia files — including high-resolution photographs — as they gradually put together a COVID-19 story, and they they are imploring people to preserve personal materials for posterity.

While people alive today want to forget about COVID-19, head of curatorial services at Niagara Falls History Museum Suzanne Moase, and assistant curator and education programer at Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum Shawna Butts both said people would be searching for these stories 50 to 100 years from now.

“When I think about a curator that’s in my position 50 years from now and may want to do an exhibition about what happened in 2020, they’re going to have looked to whoever was in the role at the time to have done a good job at collecting and documenting what was happening at that time in history,” Moase told CBC News.

“Fifty or a hundred years from now, I think somebody will appreciate what the team here put together so that they can have objects and connections and stories that they can speak to this time.”

In early 2020, both museums started collecting items and documenting this unprecedented time in history.

How we believe the COVID-19 pandemic should be remembered is, a hundred years in the future … curators, historians and other researchers can look back and see how our community came together, how we persevered through these difficult times.​​​– Shawana Butts, Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum

Moase said it’s called “contemporary collecting,” adding that in the moment, while something in history is happening, you have access to layers and layers of information and really rich sources.

“It allows you to collect sort of as deep as you want because it is current … and contemporary collecting is easy because … it’s all right here at your fingertips,” she said.

“You know, if I started right now to collect for World War II that would be much more challenging. Most of the people are no longer alive that was here during that time period. So, institutions like ours, museums and libraries and galleries that choose to collect contemporary, you’re doing it with an eye to the future.”

Objects that represent 2020

Moase said the Niagara Falls History Museum took a two-pronged approach to build its COVID-19 collection of objects that represent 2020.

They did a call out, reaching out to the community to ask if there are things that they would be willing to share.

how niagara museums plan to tell the story of covid 19 50 to 100 years from now
These photos of a person standing in front of empty shelves and a person wearing a face mast are among the Niagara Falls History Museum collection. (Niagara Falls History Museum)

Specifically, they have requested photographs, signs that were placed in windows, scrapbooks, videos, journals or anything people may have made at the time that they would consider donating to the museum.

The museum also hired a professional photographer to document what was happening in the city in those early days and weeks of the pandemic.

“So, when you visualize the idea of Niagara Falls with nobody standing on the Niagara Parkway looking at the falls, that’s something that we wanted documented,” Moase said.

“[It’s the] same thing with lineups at grocery stores or all of those empty grocery store shelves, all of those things that were happening in the early days … trying to create a good representation of what this time in history looked like.

“Niagara Falls, being a city with some pretty iconic spaces that are always riddled with people, it’s pretty amazing to look at those photos now when there’s nobody on Clifton Hill and there is nobody on the Niagara River Parkway looking over the falls, that just doesn’t happen,” she added.

how niagara museums plan to tell the story of covid 19 50 to 100 years from now 1
On May 26, 2020, the benches in Ryerson Park, Niagara-on-the-Lake were removed to discourage people gathering there. (Submitted by Shawna Butts)


Moase said the photographs are going to be very representative of not just the city but the entire country.

“Everybody that has been or will come to Niagara certainly has an idea of what this space looks like, so I think there are going to be important, iconic images,” she said.

No stories of Spanish influenza pandemic

Meanwhile, Butts said the team at  Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum took the decision to document the COVID-19 pandemic after reflecting on what happened at the time of the 100th anniversary of the Spanish influenza pandemic.

She said the museum had no information on the deadliest and fastest epidemic in human history — the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that infected one third of the global population, killing between 50 and 100 million people.

“We realized within our own collection a hundred years later, we actually didn’t have stories of the community during that period,” Butts told CBC News.

“How we believe the COVID-19 pandemic should be remembered is, a hundred years in the future … curators, historians and other researchers can look back and see how our community came together, how we persevered through these difficult times.”

No limit on what can be preserved

Butts said there is no limit on what members of the community can donate to the museum.

“We’re really looking for anything. Anything tangible, any oral history that people are willing to share because we want to tell the more inclusive story about Niagara-on-the-Lake and its community during this time,” Butts said. 

“It could be anything, from your sourdough recipe, if you were working very early on in the pandemic helping to make masks for front-line workers, if you have any spare unused masks that it something that we would like to have in the collection along with the story of why you decided to participate in a project like that. 

how niagara museums plan to tell the story of covid 19 50 to 100 years from now 2
Niagara-on-the-Lake Old Angel Inn Restaurant, during Stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening, decided to utilize the property located behind their establishment in order to follow the guidelines in place. These guidelines allowed restaurants to open to customers for dine-in service outdoors only. (Submitted by Shawna Butts)

“Business signs saying that they are closed. Though not now — social distancing signs, physical distancing signs. Photographs, policies, really any kind of story, young, old in-between, it’s something that we want to have in our collection because it will help us to tell the most inclusive story of Niagara-on-the-Lake,” she added.

No COVID-19 exhibitions for at least 50 years

Butts said the team would also like to see donations of journals, but acknowledged there might be privacy concerns. 

“We do realize that’s something that’s very personal and if there are concerns around privacy, this is not something that we will be sharing anytime soon,” Butts said.

“I definitely don’t see, in terms of our museum, us doing any exhibitions or anything around COVID-19 in the next 50 years. I think this is something that we want to look back on a hundred years from now.”

Early in the pandemic the museum created a phone-in messaging board for people to call in and share stories of the pandemic. These audio stories will also form part of the collection for future generations.

‘We don’t want to overlook children’s voices’ 

Butts said they have also received submissions from children. 

“We’ve got some local Brownies like the girls troop who submitted their perspective on the pandemic,” she said.

“Very early on we decided that we don’t want to overlook children’s voices and so we created an intermediate and junior kind of journaling initiative and we’re really looking forward to, come September, to be able to receive those submissions back.”

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