Art and objects teach us about historical moments, give us comfort, and connect us. What might we collect in a virtual exhibit to illuminate and help us through our experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic? I asked a number of people to share an object or work of art that has resonance for them right now. Below is the virtual exhibit collected from their answers.
I’d love to continue to grow this “exhibit.” What objects or works of art have resonance for you? Please share in the comments or email me at rebeccasherz – at – gmail – dot – com.
Zoom Out: Perspectives on the Pandemic
David Bowles, Museum Educator, The J. Paul Getty Museum
How Does Social Distancing Change Our Perceptions of the Natural World?
Jackie Delamatre, Museum Educator
What happens when your associations with an ordinary object change radically?
In my house, the cardboard box used to be the ultimate source of new treasures and most importantly, creative inspiration. When one arrived at our door, my daughters would rush toward it and tear it open. After flinging the packing material aside and briefly examining the contents, they would carry the box down with a Seven Dwarfs-style jolly tune and get to work on their latest creation. Over the last year, they built washing machines, laundry hampers, bunk beds, kitchen sinks, refrigerators, beaches, summer camps, desks, and all manner of other things for their dolls. And now? When we most need the inspiration, the cardboard box lands at our door with a thud and sits, forlorn and ignored, until an adult in the household can approach it, prepared to decontaminate. And as soon as it’s been emptied? Out with the recycling. Sure, we could wait the requisite 24 hours for the dreaded germs to die, but by then, the excitement has died too. And just like that, a beloved and humble object is transformed.
Charlotte Herz, High School Student
How do we use our freedom to express anger in a time of isolation?
This piece shows Ai Weiwei expressing his anger at different institutions around the world. Right now, we are all angry. It’s the universal product of being trapped inside for longer and longer periods of time. Some of us are angry at the president – to which I say, fair. Some of us are angry at people still going outside – also fair. Some of us don’t even know what to be angry at, so we fight with our families. Maybe that’s unfair but goddamn siblings are annoying. The miracle of this piece is that Ai Weiwei makes a conscious decision to not be angry at people. People, he says, are able to spark change. Rather, he makes institutions the focus of his rage. At this time we need to do the same. Be angry at our institutions of healthcare, and our prison systems. Be enraged that our rich and powerful government has let millions of people slip through the cracks where they are fully susceptible to disease and can’t afford a cure. Use the democracy we live in and the freedom we are granted to speak up for those who have been forgotten by our institutions. Use the internet, social media, and art to let it be known that we will not stand for things the way they are now.
John Stagg, Editor, James Madison Papers
In 19th century American spittoons were ubiquitous—in bars, brothels, railway carriages, the halls of Congress and the courts. Anywhere where large numbers of men congregated (spitting was gendered behavior). As knowledge of how infectious diseases spread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially tuberculosis, the medical profession came out against public spitting, but the pivotal moment was the great flu epidemic after World War I. Spitting and spittoons fell out of favor, to be replaced by chewing gum and cigarette smoking.
Holly Shulman, Editor, Dolley Madison Digital Edition
Do we all live in a bubble, despite what may be going on around us?
Living in a bubble is a survival tactic; we simply wrap ourselves up and avoid seeing the awful things going on around us to protect our sanity. Negatively, this human condition means we are too rarely prophylactic either in our personal lives or as a nation. Is the US more bubble-wrapped than other nations? Perhaps a critical portion of the population is. On a personal note I am living a comfortable life, doing my own work, enjoying my husband’s company, talking to friends and family by phone, appreciating a pleasant and beautiful neighborhood where people still stroll the streets, while I suppress my anxiety about whatever lies ahead by living in my bubble.
Lynda Kennedy, Vice President, Education & Evaluation, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
How can history give perspective and inspiration as we live through a pandemic?
By now we’ve all seen numerous references to the flu outbreak of 1918, but another historical time period to offer some perspective, and perhaps inspiration, at this time would be WWII. Considering the former USS Intrepid as the large and storied artifact it is, we can be reminded of what was arguably the last time the majority of our country felt united in its effort and its sacrifice. (Then, as now, it wasn’t everyone!) Thinking of the 3,000-3,500 young men who lived onboard, we can meditate on examples of living in relative isolation for long periods, the voluntary risk undertaken by a few for the good of the many, and the tragedy of lives lost far too soon. What must have seemed overwhelming and endless – the entire world at war – was weathered by a generation, letting us know we too can get through.
Laura B. Roberts, Roberts Consulting
What continues on and what ends?
The pear trees alongside my driveway bloomed in April, right on schedule. It is my perennial sign that spring is really here. I live in a historic duplex on a main street in Cambridge; there is an identical house next door; the four households in the two houses form a micro-neighborhood. When we moved in 30 years ago, there was a row of gloomy evergreens between the two houses. The neighbors on the other side of the trees agreed that they were ugly, so all four of us sat down, consulted plant books, and selected Bradford pear trees, which thrive in urban environments. We replaced the evergreens with three new trees, running between our parallel driveways. For many years, our two families enjoyed not only the trees but dinners and long evenings on our patios all summer, long after the blossoms gave way to leaves. Then my friend B started to fade away, taken by early dementia. Seven years ago she moved to a facility that could care for her safely. Their daughter grew up and moved to New York. Her husband moved an hour away and built a new life. Last Monday, B was taken by the virus. The trees are still in bloom. They and my memories continue to bring me joy, even as our friendship finally ends.
Janine Okmin, Bay Area Discovery Museum
Which of the billions of artifacts from this time will remain, and how will we derive meaning from them?
I first encountered Listening Post at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002, or maybe 2003—as New York was beginning to emerge from the shock of 9/11. An audio and visual installation in a darkened room, Listening Post surrounds viewers with the sound of hundreds of simultaneous snippets of conversations, taken live from internet chats, and represented by scrolling digital texts that are placed around the room. The impact is unsettling — slightly robotic voices representing us as we shared content simultaneously mundane, worrisome, threatening and inspiring. For me, it captured the fear, beauty, and the radically changed world of post 9/11 America. Artist Ben Rubin said of his piece in 2001, “There are an untold number of souls out there just dying to connect, and we want to convey that yearning. I hope people come away from this feeling the scale and immensity of human communication.” As I fear, despair, and hope now, wondering about what of our old world will be forever changed, I can’t help but marvel at the enormity of human (albeit digital) connection I see. What art might be created to capture this moment? How might we aggregate the millions of Zoom heads, TikTok posts, collaborative songs, false news reports, homeschooling memes, sourdough starter recipes, and last phone calls from hospital rooms to create a chilling artistic time capsule for today?