COLLECTING THE NOW: EFFORTS CAPTURING 2020 INSPIRE PRESERVATIONISTS
December 10, 2020 | Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe
BY ELIZABETH ROHN JEFFE, VICE CHAIR
Preservation history takes two forms. On the one hand, it may center on the story of an organized and gradual effort to save a building, designate a historic district, promote a public policy matter, or even protect a significant historic neighborhood tree. On the other hand, it may require documenting an effort to “put out a fire”—a rush to muster a quick response to a pressing and unforeseen threat. This latter situation is more likely to create a challenge when it comes to saving materials related to a historic preservation effort.
The New York Preservation Archive Project works to help preservationists safeguard the records generated by both of these models. But in this critical era of the COVID-19 pandemic and the events associated with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), it is especially instructive to examine how several major New York institutions are collecting materials “in the moment” that reflect these societal crises. The Museum of the City of New York, the New-York Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Historical Society all provide inspiring models for collecting in a “put out the fire” mode that preservationists may emulate to save preservation history in the moment.
The Museum of the City of New York is using a two-pronged effort to acquire both COVID-related and BLM-related images and artifacts. In a recent interview, Lindsay Turley, Vice President of Museum Collections, discussed how the museum went about capturing these seminal events in the City. The first step was an April 1st public request for visuals via Instagram (using the hashtag #CovidStoriesNYC), followed by outreach for social justice visuals through the museum’s existing #ActivistNY hashtag beginning the first week in June. Step two, an open call for physical materials, began on July 7th, once the Museum began to plan for limited staff to return to the Museum. (COVID protocols required the delay.)
In conjunction with the public outreach for submissions, the Museum had been in contact with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the MTA, and smaller businesses pivoting to make personal protective equipment (PPE). Turley observed that signage from City parks shows evolution during the pandemic, with messages about masks, social distancing, and other guidelines changing over time.
While anyone can instantly send a photo to the Museum, the person wishing to donate an object must submit a photo and a brief description; the Museum then decides whether to accept the object. Not everything can be taken, but several items have already become part of the collections. The first, interestingly, is a hot dog mask made by a woman who participated in the virtual Coney Island Parade. The narrative associated with the mask describes the difficulty of finding the fabric and elastic to construct it, given the supply crunch due to COVID. The Museum has also accepted a journal from a teacher whose daily entries track her passage through the pandemic: She had to begin teaching virtually, she lost her father to the disease, and she herself became ill with it. Yet another COVID-related item signifying the gratitude of New York’s citizens is the pan that a woman banged on every night at 7 p.m. to thank Essential Workers. Artifacts associated with BLM demonstrations are also becoming part of the Museum’s collections; the first is a pamphlet entitled “Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Protesters in the City of New York.” It is a spoof on a controversial 1975 “scare” pamphlet handed out to people arriving in the City.
On July 23rd, the Museum opened a photographic exhibition, New York Responds, on its front terrace, featuring visual submissions from the public related to the COVID pandemic and the movement for social justice. The images here deal with larger themes of loss, adaptation, infrastructure, and other categories of experience associated with the times. An indoor exhibition is slated to open in late fall.
The New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) is also “collecting in the moment” as part of its History Responds initiative, which began in 2001 after 9/11 and includes materials from Occupy Wall Street, the 2017 Women’s Marches, and previous BLM protests. In an interview, Nina Nazionale, Director of Library Operations and Curator of Printed Collections, outlined how N-YHS structured its current collecting efforts for COVID and BLM. On March 13th, staff began to move forward with “layers” of outreach. Nazionale and Rebecca Klassen, Associate Curator for Material Culture, started working internally, with the objective of coordinating paper (Nazionale’s specialty) and objects (Klassen’s specialty), since the library is paper- based and the Museum holds three- dimensional artifacts. The work of the Head of Prints, Photographers and Architectural Collections, Marilyn Kushner, straddles both areas of expertise.
Shortly thereafter, Nazionale and Klassen met many times, working in conjunction with the communications and education departments. The former created strategies for outreach to the public, while the latter sought to capture materials from children, especially journals from teens. N-YHS issued a press release, which led first to coverage by The Wall Street Journal, resulting in direct contact from the public; The New York Times and other publications covered the initiative as well. Nazionale did a series of radio interviews that created a connection with the public, some members of which subsequently sent COVID and BLM materials directly to her. Public outreach came next via various social media outlets, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, for both COVID materials and BLM/social protest items, and Klassen made a July 21st presentation on the Society’s weekly live online “Curator Confidential” forum to share information on the Society’s current efforts to collect COVID and BLM materials for History Responds.
For her part, Klassen has also been active “in the field” collecting objects of interest. After the unrest in SoHo, artists came to the area and created murals supporting BLM on the plywood boards that had been placed over storefront windows. Klassen saved two murals just as the retail stores were about to reopen for in-person shopping under Phase 2. Klassen also hopes to access the COVID memorial designed by sculptor Jim Conboy at the corner of Tompkins Square Park. After the pandemic precluded his family’s ability to gather and mourn the non- COVID-related death of his brother, Conboy created a Styrofoam abstract sculpture, “Transfiguration,” above a corner column in the park and placed a mirror in front tracking the number of COVID-related deaths. Next to it, a sign reads, “stay six feet apart or be six feet under.” As an indication of what Klassen deemed “fraught times,” the sculpture was vandalized, another narrative thread.
N-YHS is also addressing the time-sensitive nature of digital public websites by printing and saving key postings. For example, Nazionale observed, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) created downloadable PDFs in dozens of languages for use by immigrant groups—among its print accessions, the Society has obtained an actual CDC sign written in Bengali. These CDC infographics made use of rich colors and appealing designs, but such online resources are by nature ephemeral, requiring permanent documentation. Similarly, tracking evolution in emails and institutional websites also requires creating hard copies of online messages. Postings by businesses and public institutions that more than once changed their plans about the extent to which they could remain open in the days leading up to the New York State “Pause” provide real-time testimony to the rapid spread of COVID.
Nazionale shared another key observation: the “mundane” provides critical primary resources. People often do not understand that what they have “around the house” tells an important story of a unique moment in time. For example, a child’s drawing, or other seemingly unimportant items, are indeed worthy of being saved. Klassen noted that she likes to track what people post on social media to see what they consider important.
While the Museum of the City of New York, in line with its mission, has focused on collecting COVID and BLM materials related only to the City, N-YHS collects across a statewide spectrum. Given its array of collected materials, N-YHS does plan eventually to have an indoor exhibition featuring its COVID and BLM collections, but there are no specific plans in place at the moment. However, the “Dreaming Together” exhibition at N-YHS in collaboration with the Asia Society, on view from October 23, 2020 until July 25, 2021, features a selection of the recently collected materials.
Manhattan institutions are not alone in “saving in the moment.” Maggie Schreiner, Manager of Archives and Special Collections at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), recently discussed how BHS has garnered COVID and BLM visual images and artifacts for posterity. The initiative began in April via Instagram, Twitter, and email. BHS also reached out to local print and online press outlets to publicize the project; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The City, Brownstoner, Brooklyn Heights Blog, The Brooklyn Paper, and South Brooklyn Network all provided coverage.
As in the case of the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society, BHS has a process in place for members of the public interested in making submissions. Potential donors use a Google form to offer photos and objects; all submissions must have a date, location, and contextual information. Naturally, the photos and items collected by BHS focus on Brooklyn, but the Society has an exception in place: if a photographer has a mixed portfolio focused mainly on Brooklyn, BHS will access included images from elsewhere in the City.
Since BHS will not be reopening in the near future, physical acquisition of artifacts has not yet begun, but virtual acceptance of materials has already started with a “running list” in place for when the archives open. Items on this list include a Brooklyn Bridge Park sign calling for social distancing and a bottle from a Brooklyn brewery that pivoted to producing hand sanitizer during the pandemic. Other objects include children’s “rainbow” artwork, pictures related to the COVID crisis that were placed in windows. The project began in Brooklyn, and became an international phenomenon, with rainbow drawings appearing in many windows as a sign of hope. One particularly interesting aspect of the COVID crisis examined by BHS is how the pandemic has affected religious practice. Reflecting this, the Society has received photographs of families celebrating a Seder via Zoom and of religious groups running food kitchens.
The response from the community has been significant, with photographs and objects collected numbering in the hundreds, with more to come. Schreiner observed that the response by the public waxed in the early stages of the initiative and is waning a bit now. This is in part due to the fact that BHS has fewer staff members to process submissions. Also, this has been a time of flux for the Society, which merged with the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) on October 2, 2020 to create the new Center for Brooklyn History. The combined collections, including the COVID and BLM materials, will be centralized at the BHS building at 128 Pierrepont Street. An added benefit at this time of the union of the two institutions will be that the Brooklyn Public Library is currently conducting oral histories on the pandemic, another resource for the future.
When asked about collecting for BLM and social protest, Schreiner explained that while BHS is collecting some materials related to social protest, the decision was made to leave this initiative primarily to black institutions as an appropriate venue. BHS has looked to Documenting the Now and Blacktivists for leadership on collecting BLM materials. Schreiner also mentioned concern on the part of BHS that having photographic images of protesters might lead to awkward situations wherein the FBI or other law enforcements agencies would use those images to try to identify protesters. BHS does not have plans at the moment for an exhibition based on its COVID and BLM collections, although Schreiner said she’d “love to have one.” Merging with BPL has been a priority in terms of staff time and allocation of resources.
In spite of the fact that “in the moment” collecting outreach by these
three institutions has not resulted in the acquisition of materials directly related to preservation, the initiatives provide significant “takeaways” for preservationists. Clearly, being aware “in the moment” of the importance of saving materials is essential, as is remembering that even seemingly prosaic items may have historical importance. But perhaps the most critical element in the current push to engage in “rapid response saving” is the use of social media, for outreach and for story-saving. To ensure a vital future in safeguarding their histories, preservationists need to use technology to engage the public and garner materials related to preservation campaigns.
Those wishing to save preservation’s history also need to recognize that the digital world can be ephemeral—online posts that are critical to save regarding a battle or key background information might disappear and should be printed out if necessary.
Similarly, maintaining links with the public through online programming and recording oral histories has become especially relevant during the pandemic because of a limited ability to gather publicly and to interact physically. Innovative forms of outreach are more crucial now than ever before. Like the institutions profiled here, preservationists can—and must—embrace the digital age for the benefit of preservation posterity.