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Anthea Hartig calls it “putting the big bear into hibernation”.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, boasting more than 1.8m objects over 800,000 square feet, can draw 10,000 visitors on a good day and usually closes only on 25 December. But this year a museum dedicated to preserving history found itself living that history.
In March it was forced to shut its doors because of the coronavirus pandemic. It reopened for limited numbers in late September – “BIG NEWS!” tweeted Donald Trump, “Go visit @amhistorymuseum and learn about our GREAT Country’s history!” – but was put back to sleep in early November as the virus roared back.
Given its location on the National Mall, the museum’s curators were also within touching distance of protests, violence and mourning that shook the nation’s capital this summer. They faced the real-time challenge of collecting artefacts and testimonies that will help future generations make sense of a year like no other.
This was something that Hartig could never have predicted when she became director of the American history museum in February 2019, the first woman to hold the post. Little more than a year later, in March 2020, the Smithsonian announced that all 19 of its museums plus the national zoo would have to join the nationwide lockdown. The date, fittingly, was Friday the 13th.
Hartig, who at 56 is the same age as the museum, recalled in an interview with the Guardian: “There was a sense of calm acknowledgment that we absolutely had to do our part and try and engage and flatten that curve, to try and stop socialized spread. I’ll remember that week I hope as long as I have memory.”
The American history museum has about 260 staff and they have not been unscathed by Covid-19. Like countless other workplaces, Hartig and her team had to adapt to remote working and Zoom meetings. But they pressed ahead with conservation work, building maintenance and even a new exhibition, “Girlhood! (It’s complicated)”, exploring how girls have been on the frontlines of social and cultural change.
“A lot of it was this iterative process of figuring out how do you keep crews safe? Work crews, installation crews, our mount makers, our collection managers, our curators. You’re not going to put Minnijean Brown’s graduation dress from 1959 into a case by yourself. We’re very used to working in teams or in pairs.”
But now the museum is slumbering again.
In a scene reminiscent of the Night at the Museum films, exhibits such as the original Star-Spangled Banner, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, dresses worn by first ladies and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz spend long days unseen in the vast building, staffed only by a skeleton crew. On some days there have been only 25 or 30 people inside.
Hartig still goes in about once a week and has found ways to savor the silences. “When you’re in a museum that’s still, that’s ceased its public function, I think if you open your heart and mind to it, you get a really amazing sense of all that goes into making it work.
“It’s a beautiful feeling. I have always loved being in spaces like that, like if you get into a symphony hall when there’s not a symphony playing because I think you then have an appreciation for when the building is open and animated.”
This was a year of what Hartig calls “cascading crises” – a pandemic that killed more than 300,000 people, economic despair for millions, a reckoning over racial injustice and high stakes elections. Commentators were quick to draw comparisons with the influenza pandemic of 1918, the racial unrest of 1968 or other moments when it seemed the great American experiment was unraveling at the seams. Presidential historians such as Jon Meacham and Michael Beschloss have become stars of cable news.
“More people are interested in history in the past year or so than I can remember in my 31-year career,” said Hartig. “I think people understand how relevant it is. I often joke that I wish I had a context wand, like a magic wand, and I could just pat people on the head and say, ‘I have thus gifted you context.’
“Context for historians is the butter to the bread. The depth of context we all hope for in our training isn’t often on evident display in broader cultural political community conversations. So when context comes into a conversation and is well handled, it’s always going to be a richer conversation.”
She continued: “We’re not necessarily seeing history repeat itself but I see more like more origami, the folds of time: where do the sides start touching? I do think there is so much to learn from the complexity of the past and we’re also thinking about what we need to remember from this time.
“You can start to see the ‘Roaring Twenties’ as not just a response to the horrors of world war one, the war to end wars, but as a response to the incredible flu epidemic of 1918-20, which we don’t talk about a lot. More interest in the great pandemic of 1918 has been displayed now, 102 years later, because of searching for the last big pandemic.”
“In terms of systemic racism and police brutality and the long shadow that slavery cast not just on the United States, but on the Americas, on the world even, it’s something that will always need historical perspectives to help understand how we have wronged so many and how then we can try and continue to ensure that the nation is held to its stated ideals.”
Decades from now, when people seek to understand the epic events of 2020, the National Museum of American History will be one of the places they turn. The museum launched a “Stories of 2020” online project, inviting the public to contribute to a digital time capsule, and has expanded its online presence generally.
“We all take the responsibility to collect and document and understand and preserve and, even if we don’t quite comprehend it all yet, to try and not miss these moments,” Hartig said.
But gathering physical artefacts has proved unusually difficult. “All the collecting we’ve done, with a few exceptions of some avid active field collecting around Black Lives Matter, we’ve had to do via email and phone call and text and asking people to hold on to things for us because we physically can’t bring them in.”
The arrival of vaccines gives the Smithsonian and other cultural institutions in Washington hope of at least a gradual reopening next year. Congress has also approved the creation of two new museums honouring women and Latinos. But for now, with most tourists staying away, the capital’s museum corridors, concert halls and theatres are strangely hushed.
David Rubenstein, who holds senior positions at the Smithsonian, National Gallery of Art and Kennedy Center, said: “It’s eerie walking through buildings that are usually filled and now you see they are empty and quiet. You walk through a Smithsonian building and there’s the guards and that’s about it. Same is true at the National Gallery of Art: we opened the National Gallery and we had to close it again.”
Rubenstein, a leading philanthropist, was the driving force behind a concert filmed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Kennedy Center aimed at bringing the nation together after a year of turmoil. “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America”, with performers including violinist Joshua Bell, soprano Renée Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, will be shown on PBS television on New Year’s Eve.
“We had a pretty good audience but socially distanced,” Rubenstein added. “I regarded this as a gift to the country. A way to cheer people up a little bit.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘People see how relevant history is’: Smithsonian tackles Covid challenge | Museums