Alexandra Lord, a curator at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C., started to get worried in February. She was deep into planning a major exhibition called “In Sickness and in Health” that was partly about the disease outbreaks that have changed the country’s trajectory, from the Philadelphia yellow-fever epidemic of 1793 to the viruses brought West by white settlers in the eighteen-thirties, which killed huge numbers of indigenous people. The exhibit was slated to open next year, but Lord and her colleagues were suddenly reading reports of a virus that had surfaced in China and that was beginning to blossom around the globe: on a cruise ship in Yokohama, at ski resorts in France. As the chair of the museum’s division of medicine and science, and a specialist in the history of public health, Lord had been on pandemic watch for a long time. Was this another sars? Was it another Spanish flu? “By March, it was pretty clear,” she recalled recently. “This was going to be a huge story.”
The story would have to be part of her exhibit, and the museum would need to start collecting new objects in order to tell it. Lord, who has a purposeful, upbeat way about her, had already contacted people at the United States Public Health Service, and she began discussing ideas with colleagues. She and her supervisor, Benjamin Filene, set up weekly meetings to develop collecting strategies and to decide how the museum would respond to the pandemic more generally. On March 14th, the museum, along with the other buildings that make up the Smithsonian Institution, was abruptly closed. All but a handful of staff were locked out. Like workers at office jobs across the world, the task force would have to operate online.Read The New Yorker’s complete news coverage and analysis of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rapid-response collecting, as it’s called, is not new. For decades, the Smithsonian has dispatched curators to scour for memorabilia on Presidential campaign trails.