Scott Miller is a PhD student at the University of South Florida. His area of concentration is 20th Century American history with a focus on the Cold War.
“For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle.” This is an excerpt from a letter written by a doctor stationed at Camp Davens (Massachusetts) during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Letters, diaries, and photographs from that period have provided historians with invaluable insight into the pandemic that took over 20 million lives.
As the world wrestles with a new pandemic, historians around the world are mobilizing to document this crisis for future generations. A recent New York Times article discussed how museums in such countries as Finland, Denmark and Switzerland are scurrying to record history as it unfolds. The staff at Denmark’s Vesthimmerlands Museum have been busy capturing photographs of the empty streets and shut down stores. Museum curator Maria Hagstrup is quoted as saying, “Usually, we think of a museum as a place with objects behind solid glass. But right now, we have a chance to get people’s impressions in the moment, before they’ve even had time to reflect on them.” When it is safe, the museum also hopes to collect objects relevant to the pandemic.
Here in the United States, several historical associations are reaching out to the public for help recording current events.
The Connecticut Historical Society has created a portal for residents to upload their personal stories, photographs and drawings. “We are living in historic times. We recognize that primary source material is the ingredient that history is made of,” said Ilene Frank, chief curator of the historical society in a recent interview. “One hundred years from now, people will be able to study the statistics about how many businesses closed, how many people got sick. We want the human touch, capturing the experience of living during this time.”
Minnesota’s Historical Society isn’t new to documenting history in the moment. In 2016, following the death of native son Prince, the Society collected residents’ stories and photographs of the musical legend. Today, they are requesting COVID-19 related digital submissions— stories, images, sound files, or moving images. Some selected material will be posted on social media, and some preserved at the History Center.
The Maryland Historical Society has created Collecting in Quarantine. The initiative consists of two parts. The first, Letters from the Homefront, is asking Marylanders to email their first-person accounts of how this pandemic is affecting their lives. The Business Unusual element is requesting photographs to tell the economic impact side of this crisis.