Museums ask citizens to preserve pandemic history as it happens

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Museums, historical societies, and archives across the state of Tennessee are looking to preserve history as it unfolds by asking residents to preserve stories and artifacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tennessee State Museum is presently working on increasing both its digital offerings and serving the needs of the state. Joe Pagetta, director of communications with the museum, said the museum is currently working with the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) to chronicle the outbreak statewide.
“The TSLA is currently soliciting for such things as diaries and photographs, and we’ll be coordinating our efforts with them,” he said. “It may be, as a general rule, that we shall be seeking three-dimensional items (though we are still creating our plan). We certainly recognize the importance of collecting at this time, though the creation and implementing of that plan has been made somewhat challenging by the pandemic itself and stay-at-home orders.”
In light of the pandemic, the TSLA is also encouraging users to learn about similar periods of adversity faced by Tennesseans in the past, such as the quarantines created during the statewide Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 or the yellow fever outbreak in the Greater Memphis area in 1879, today memorialized by the city’s Martyrs Park. Artifacts from these periods are on virtual display at the state archives website.
The Clarksville Parks and Recreation Department has asked residents to engage in a historical documentation project by chronicling their personal experiences during the pandemic such as how it has impacted their work, schooling, daily routine, and home life.
Tracy Jepson, historical interpreter at Fort Defiance Civil War Park and Interpretive Center, has designed a project titled “Clarksville and COVID-19: Saving Our Stories.” Jepson is looking for local people who would be willing to share their personal experiences during the pandemic.
“I know that future generations will want to hear our perspectives and think about our experiences during this life-changing time in our community, state, and nation,” she said. “I am creating a file of social histories to submit to our local archives for safekeeping.”
Additionally, the project has partnered with more than 20 local photographers to document life in Clarksville during the period and is preserving news stories, data, reports, and other information surrounding the pandemic on the local, state, and national level.
Collierville’s Morton Museum Director Lydia Warren said the museum is continuing to engage with the community as well as create a collection for future museum-goers archiving the town’s experience with the pandemic.
“At the Morton Museum, we’ve launched several initiatives to capture the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of local residents during the pandemic,” Warren said. “We have a journaling program, where students and adults are journaling at home during the pandemic and will submit their writing to the museum later this year. We have a short online survey, where residents are invited to share their experiences quickly, easily, and, if they choose, anonymously. This has been very well received. Katie Bailey, our visitor services coordinator, has been documenting the local and national media response by saving newspapers, magazines, photos, and (since she does our social media) memes. She also has a timeline of local closures and re-openings. With our online form, sharing is very easy. With our journaling project, we hope to make sharing accessible to those who are not tech savvy, or lack access to technology. We are also accepting photos and videos.”
Warren said this collection will offer future historians and museum-goers a glimpse into this unique period in the town’s history as well as a more personal perspective on the situation from local residents themselves.
“Archiving first-person stories from Collierville residents of all ages, and from all walks of life, preserves snapshots of different local responses, reactions, and experiences,” she said. “Collecting and preserving this data shows the impact of national and global trends and policies on our community, and how our community is responding. While fear is a general theme in the submissions we’ve received, hope and help are, too. Collierville residents are more than happy to make masks and support local businesses when possible.”
The Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University is also asking residents from East Tennessee to document their personal experiences and chronicle how the outbreak has affected life in the region. ETSU’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, which includes the Archives of Appalachia, will collect materials during the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and permanently house them within the center.
Dr. Jeremy Smith, director of the Archives of Appalachia, said interested persons are invited to share materials such as diaries, writings, photographs, videos, social media posts and business correspondences that represent their experience during this time.
“Our project, ‘Telling Your Story: Documenting COVID-19 in East Tennessee,’ will chronicle how the people of our region journeyed through these unprecedented times,” Smith said. “We want to hear from our community how they spent their days, how their lives, families, and businesses were affected and how they experienced loss and hardship, as well as how they stood in solidarity and the lessons they learned.”