39. Signs of the times | Monocle

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“My background is as an archivist, so as soon as there was any sort of state guidance [relating to coronavirus], such as the travel restrictions announced at the end of February, we started thinking about what we should be doing to chronicle the pandemic at the Museum of the City of New York. Archivists know that if you don’t save it, it disappears.

At a time when people are focused on huge issues that are affecting their lives, the foremost priority is personal health. We’re trying to figure out the right balance between reaching out to people and making it known that we want to collect things, while understanding that there’s an appropriate amount of patience we need to show in the conversations we have with everyone who’s affected by this.

Normally when there is a city-wide event, it’s easy to choose what to collect. During the Women’s March that followed the presidential election of 2016, I was there in the midst of it, looking at signs and watching people and everything else that was happening. Right now I’m only seeing a couple of blocks around my apartment so I don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the city. I can see what’s on the news but I don’t have a view of the personal experience beyond my small neighbourhood. So when it comes to the specific nature of what we want to collect, we won’t know until we reach those people who have objects.

I think that we will want to collect an assortment of handmade masks as well as some of the strict, to-the-guideline medical masks. Obviously, right now, no medical masks are coming to us as they all need to be in the hands of the people who need them. There are also the signs that have been posted on the businesses and restaurants that are closed right now – a lot of them have personal messages to their customers. We will definitely want some of those in the collection as well as official city signs, such as those banners in parks that show you the appropriate distance to keep apart from others.

I haven’t been on the subway in a while but I’m sure that there is signage there that outlines the changes in travel as a result of coronavirus. There have also been a number of events that have been cancelled in the city; we’re reaching out to some of the [organisers] to get material from those. There are going to be various ways in which different people are coping with the boredom – and some of them will be remarkable and surprising.

We differ from a historical society because our museum’s mission is to collect material that supports our exhibition programming, so we don’t have to be encyclopaedic in what we gather. We aren’t trying to document every single second of New York’s history. What we’re looking for is representative objects that will help us to tell the city’s stories. At the moment the museum doesn’t collect digitally but we’re living a digital life right now, which includes how we communicate with our families or how we place orders for a delivery. Thinking about how we memorialise some of the activities of this period is a challenge.

Once they’re let free into the world again, New Yorkers will want to be with other people. Being able to come together to look at real, physical things in person, alongside others – not just in the digital world – can provide relief. The public feels as though this has been an enormous event in history. They’ll be expecting all of the cultural institutions to be examining it and having something to say about it.

I’m obviously not an infectious-disease specialist – I don’t know what lessons you need to learn to prevent something like this from happening again. What we, as humans, have shown is how we can come together and endure it; how we can be good to one another and how our cities can be resilient. As archivists we can show the sort of things that come out of a situation such as this: the creativity, the inventiveness, the new traditions. It can be encouraging to say that we’ve had threats like this before, whether it was a war, a disease or a financial panic. What are the things that we do to come together? Artefacts can help memorialise them in a way that brings it home and grounds it for people.”

About the interviewee: Turley heads up the collections department at the Museum of the City of New York. For this article, she spoke to monocle’s Chiara Rimella.

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