These Local Museums Want to Hear Your Pandemic Experience

Cultural organizations that record our community history are working to make sense of this global pandemic by collecting personal messages from regular folks.

The 1918 flu pandemic actually stretched over a year into summer 1919. In those pre-internet days, people wrote down the troubles of the day in diaries and journals, not expecting their entries to matter 100 years later. Their preservation has proven valuable during the current COVID-19 pandemic, though—from mental morale to historic context to a sense of solidarity, reading about the challenges overcome by others somehow makes our own more bearable. That’s why organizations like the Behringer-Crawford Museum, the Mercantile Library, and the Cincinnati Museum Center are urging us to do the same now.

Illustration by Cornelia Li

“In the immediate, we were thinking, This is history, we do want to record it, we do want to preserve it, we do want more than one perspective on what it was like,” says Samantha Simendinger, assistant director of Behringer-Crawford. “Everybody is dealing with this pandemic in their own ways. Maybe in the future when we’re not going through this any longer, we’ll be able to say, OK, I know what that person’s talking about, and I understand why they would feel this way.”

The museum invites patrons and citizens to submit personal stories from this COVID-19 period for the project Behind the Mask: NKY in the Pandemic, a historical documentary of life during shutdown. Submissions can include nearly anything—videos, photographs, writings—that capture this unique moment in global history from a local perspective.

Fully in the internet era, the Mercantile Library has created a Medium website for its submissions, and Cedric Rose, Mercantile librarian and collector (and Cincinnati Magazine contributor), plans to add them to the library’s collection for future perusal. “I think on some level this is part of all libraries’ mission,” he says. “Our archive is institutionally focused on our own history, but our own history is also our members’ experiences. So sharing those experiences is important.” Rose says that the value of literary culture is “how we essentially can learn lessons across time as a species. In certain moments when we’re under duress, it’s important to just capture it, because you don’t know what lessons there are until you have a chance to look back. Archivists aren’t really there to make judgment calls; it’s about taking a snapshot.”

Simendinger agrees. “In terms of submitting a story, it doesn’t matter if it’s grammatically incorrect or if it makes you cry or laugh,” she says. “It’s just about someone being able to tell us what their experience was like, because every story is worth telling. I think that’s what our museum is based on. It’s worth sharing because it’s been hard for all of us. Knowing you’re not alone in this is sometimes the only thing you need.”

The Cincinnati Museum Center is collecting physical and digital mementos of life during the pandemic under the project banner Pandemic Stories: Greater Cincinnati and the 2020 COVID-19 Crisis. Physical items can be dropped off or mailed to CMC, and digital items can be uploaded to its website.

Neither the Museum Center nor Behringer-Crawford has announced a concrete plan for future exhibitions of public submissions, largely because the pandemic, unfortunately, is ongoing. “I think we’ll only really know how traumatic it is once we’re on the other side of it,” says Simendinger. “When you’re in the moment and experiencing it, you’re just doing your best to get through it. But I think once it’s over, I might look back on it and ask, How did we get through that? Right now, we don’t know what that looks like.”

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