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How to collect coronavirus

Sep 10, 2020 • 14m 44s

Cultural institutions in Australia have begun to collect evidence of how coronavirus is changing the country in real time, as part of a movement to collect ‘social histories’. But how difficult is the task, especially when there’s no national vision for collecting culture in our country.

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How to collect coronavirus

306 • Sep 10, 2020

How to collect coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
As coronavirus transforms the country, cultural institutions are trying to record what’s happening in real time. It’s part of an effort to create ‘social histories’ that take into account how events unfold from the perspective of everyday Australians.

Today: journalist Lauren Carroll Harris on how we’re constructing the story of the pandemic.

RUBY:

Lauren, when the pandemic hit Australia earlier this year, museums, like most workplaces, were forced to shut down. How did they respond to that?

LAUREN:

Museums had to close their doors in March and a week after the National Museum of Australia closed its doors, they realized they needed to relate to this crazy moment in history and begin a coronavirus collection, the way they began to do that was by opening a Facebook page as part of their research phase.

RUBY:

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and curator, she wrote about museums in the time of Covid-19 for The Saturday Paper.

LAUREN:

The Facebook page is called ‘Bridging the Distance’. It's a pretty fascinating, real-time timeline, I guess you'd say, of everyday people's responses to how they're feeling, how they're coping and how they're communicating with each other and with strangers in a global pandemic.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Just hunkered down and you know waiting to get out really…”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Not a soul and it's only 8 o’clock in the evening…”

LAUREN:

It has evidence of panic buying in supermarkets.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Empty, empty, oh my god…”

LAUREN:

It has people just posting stuff around them, cause they are trapped in their houses.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Ok - Just um.. it's May 2020, in the time of corona. This is my veggie garden that I planted. This is my pug - Marley. Hi Marley.”

LAUREN:

There's also just kind of funny little memes, Tik Tok videos, people dancing, videos taken from inside hotel quarantine.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Quarantine, quarantine, I love, you love quarantine!”

LAUREN:

There's one really interesting little video about a tourist town in the Whitsundays, but it's like an apocalypse film. It's devoid of all tourists. That grassroots perspective of someone who lives in a tourist town and fears that it might not bounce back.

Once you get past the videos of emptiness at Qantas clubs and and terminals, you get to just videos of people stirring soup in their kitchens. And I think it reflects on this desire to reach out and this frustration with the indoors life that we're all facing now.

RUBY:

Are there any particular posts that you have found kind of more meaningful or more, I guess, spot on in terms of the way the pandemic is affecting people?

LAUREN:

A lot of it is just, I suppose, the images of hope, that seems to be what people want to see. It seems to be what people want to share. I think the people who are on this Facebook group are very civic minded. They want to reach out. Even recently this week, a woman just asked, is everyone adjusting to this new lifestyle? And I find those kind of plaintive little missives on the Facebook group really quite, quite touching and interesting.

RUBY:

Mm and so is this a new way for museums to operate, to try and capture history as it's happening?

LAUREN:

You know, we live a digital life now. We live an especially digital life since the shutdown so it makes sense that a lot of what museums are doing now is collecting digital data. And I spoke to Craig Middleton, who's an Australian history curator at the National Museum of Australia.

Archival tape -- Craig Middleton:

“Most museums wouldn't necessarily collect objects through Facebook groups. So it's it's it's an approach that's a little bit different…”

LAUREN:

He says that contemporary collecting means that museums are collecting in the moment, in the unfinished present.

Archival tape -- Craig Middleton:

“So collecting history as it happens, collecting everyday moments from everyday Australians to build a picture of what is a really complex and interesting moment we're living through…”

LAUREN:

I love that museums aren't just anchored in an idea of history as the distant past. It means that history is happening, we're in it. You can actually approach history not just as something that happened in ancient Rome.

Archival tape -- Craig Middleton:

“You can catch those really everyday, sometimes mundane things that get lost to history because they're not necessarily being recorded officially.”

LAUREN:

So a lot of social history museums, they're not just thinking about treasures. Really, they're rethinking what the idea of a treasure is.

RUBY:

And I suppose this is quite a different approach to what we might think of when we imagine the traditional role of a museum. So are the challenges involved in trying to do something like this?

LAUREN:

Yeah, definitely. It's an amazing fact that we barely ever discuss in Australia. And that’s that there's no national cultural policy. There hasn't been since the last Labor government. It means that there's no national vision for how to conduct the arts and culture in Australia. So it's a major problem and it's not in line with other countries that are, you know, of a similar economy, a similar type of governing.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Lauren, what does Australia’s lack of a cohesive culture policy mean for museums in this time?

LAUREN:

I think it means that maybe Australia's museum sector could be a little bit behind in the formalized thinking. Somewhere like the UK, for example, for almost 20 years has had a national cultural policy that includes museums because museums are pretty distinct from the arts sector or from what we might think of as the creative industries. And so in the UK the museums sector are included in the national cultural policy, that says that public access to museums and attending them is can be a part of community wellbeing. We don't have that backdrop for the things that museums are doing and the way that they're collecting.

You see in the UK, you have working class museums, for example. You have a much greater variety, I guess. So when I speak to various curators of social history, museums and their media officers as well, what I really notice is that the institutions have an impetus to focus on the positive. They want to create a timeline that is arching toward resilience, community kindness. One that expresses a lot of belief and faith in liberal cultural institutions at a time when increasingly the public's trust in institutions in general is falling towards skepticism.

RUBY:

And what ways has Covid-19 intersected with other social movements and how is that being incorporated into the recording of this moment in time?

LAUREN:

When I spoke to Craig Middleton, the curator at the National Museum of Australia, the way that he described it is that social history is about people. It's about history as it's unfolding from the ground up,

Archival tape -- Craig Middleton:

“From a western society perspective, there was this idea that the history that was recorded was only the legislation. It was of the people in power. And you know, that was history and say ‘history from below’ emerged when people from, you know, working class backgrounds were acknowledging that their histories were important too.”

LAUREN:

So they're really looking at the intersection of Covid-19 with other social movements and how they can record that in a way that makes sense. I think we all know that Covid-19 is opening up every single pre-existing rupture as to how our society is ordered and organized. How do you explain the massive social and political failures of this year with a positive narrative of democracy being strengthened.

I'm not sure how that narrative explains, for example, the way that so many people have fallen into long-term unemployment in this last six months, have lost their housing security, have experienced, you know, really racist treatment. And it's significant to me that the biggest social movement this year has been Black Lives Matter.

Archival tape -- chanting crowd:

“We can’t breath...”

LAUREN:

That's not that's not just coincidental since the pandemic. It's because the pandemic tore open every single dividing line of race and class.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“For two hundred plus years we’ve been oppressed and we still can’t breathe.”

LAUREN:

So I understand that the experiences of those in the public housing towers in Melbourne will be recorded by curators...

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Why is it happening to us, are we different, do we happen to be a different class?”

LAUREN:

...those people who perhaps took a risk by attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations while trying to implement social distancing.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“We need to beat the system that is causing oppression of black lives not just today but for all future generations…”

LAUREN:

They'll be interviewed by curators and the approach there is to interview, to collect testimonies and oral histories.

I also noticed this week that there have been some public backlashes, demonstrations against restrictions. And so I'm very curious to see how these emergent Covid-19 collections engage with the idea of human rights in a global pandemic. What we sacrifice in terms of the right to assemble, the right to protest, the right to repatriate, the right to move around during a global pandemic, even within domestic borders.

I think one problem that people face with social isolation is that their preexisting institutional and their personal biases and context are even more amplified simply because they can't travel and see how others outside of your own demographic are being affected by the pandemic.

So through reporting this story, I came to wonder how that tunnel vision quality of recording history at a distance will affect museum’s coronavirus collections and and how they'll change their method of collecting and their curatorial practices to get across really the non-universal experiences of the coronavirus.

RUBY:

And do you have a sense of how the NMA final collection will look and feel and sound and what the historic record of this pandemic will be?

LAUREN:

I get the sense that all the various Social History Museum's collections will be beautifully banal. The reality is that history as it passes is quite nondescript. So when you're thinking about a coronavirus collection, it may not be dramatic. For me, the pandemic, I always think it feels a bit like being stuck waiting for a family member in the emergency department of a hospital.

Like it's quite stressful but it's also quite boring. We're waiting for something to pass and our lives have taken on a very domestic indoors quality of waiting and watching as the world stands still. So I expect that coronavirus collections will mirror that with tiny, almost spectacularly spectacular everyday objects that speak to say what it means to live under a curfew. And they'll also be a lot of digital data collected, which obviously fits with the times.

I always remember a curator told me that it's not just about having an exhibition. The collection itself is the outcome.

RUBY:

Lauren, thank you so much for your time today.

LAUREN:

No problems. Thanks a lot.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today...

The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says regional Victoria is "on the cusp" of meeting case number targets that could speed up its re-opening timeline.

Victoria recorded 76 new coronavirus infections yesterday and 11 further deaths, taking the state's COVID-19 death toll to 694.

And a leading coronavirus vaccine trial has been put on hold after an ‘unexplained illness’. The Oxford University trial was halted in what’s being described as a "routine" action, while a review takes place.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

As coronavirus transforms the country before our eyes, cultural institutions are trying to record what is happening in real time, as part of a movement towards constructing ‘social histories’. But, as Lauren Carroll Harris reports, Australian museums are hampered by a lack of a national vision for how to conduct arts and culture in the country.

Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper Lauren Carroll Harris.

Background reading:

Museums collecting Covid-19 objects in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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306: How to collect coronavirus