As this historical moment unfolds, Historical Society is taking notes

The COVID-19 pandemic is destined to be part of history, and historians are collecting artifacts in real time

two women from different eras wearing face masks
A nurse wearing a protective face covering during the flu pandemic of 1918 juxtaposed with artist Maggie Thompson wearing a face mask she made this year. The Minnesota Historical Society is collecting objects and stories pertaining to the global pandemic and sharing some of them on a blog called "History is Now."
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

You don’t need to be a historian to know that we are living in historic times. Not since the influenza of 1918 has the world been crippled by a pandemic like the one caused by the new coronavirus. Within just a few months, COVID-19 has transformed the way we live. 

Minnesota Historical Society director Kent Whitworth said it’s important to document such moments. 

Caucasian man in suit and tie looking at camera
Minnesota Historical Society director and CEO Kent Whitworth
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

“We think about the supply chain now very intentionally,” he said. “But a couple of months ago, we all took it for granted and we didn't think about that interaction then, and the potential exchange of germs and. So, you know, isn't it amazing how this pandemic has changed all of our perspectives literally overnight?”

Whitworth said the Historical Society is interested not just in big changes but the more subtle ones, too — and to hear first-hand from Minnesotans of all different backgrounds. 

“So, what we're trying to do is get a sense of the feelings and the immediate reactions of other Minnesotans during this time,” he said. “And we know that's valuable — both in a few years and, frankly, in 50 or 100 years — as historians try to get their heads around what this was like and how it impacted people.”

The Minnesota Historical Society has a blog called “History is Now” where it’s sharing some of the submissions it’s received, and there’s a link for people who want to contribute their own story or poem or photograph. Whitworth said the guidelines are pretty loose. 

“The purpose here is to not box people in but give people ways to connect and ways to identify with others that are going through similar kinds of experiences,” he said. “I mean, in some respects, this is kind of a consummate shared experience for all of us around the globe.”

Submissions have included a grandmother caring for her grandchild while the baby’s parents continue to work. An employee of the Minnesota Zoo shared what it’s like to care for animals without the throngs of crowds. 

“I would encourage any Minnesotan who thinks, ‘Oh, they don't really care what I'm thinking.’ Yes, we absolutely care what you're thinking and feeling,” Whitworth said. “What you've learned, where you've been challenged, how you've grown. That really matters to us, both in the short run and the long run.”

Two folded face masks, made with native fabric, on a wooden table.
Anishinaabe artist and designer Sarah Agaton Howes is one of several Native artists who have turned their artistic talents to making protective masks for those in need.
Courtesy of Sarah Agaton Howes

In addition to taking submissions, Minnesota Historical Society staff are actively collecting things that are a product of this historic moment. A pastel drawing of essential workers at a grocery store. Face masks made by Native American artists with indigenous motifs. 

Artist and entrepreneur Sai Xiong said he was surprised when someone from the historical society called him up to ask if they could buy one of his T-shirts. He had been frustrated by the surge of anti-Asian sentiment he and his friends were experiencing, and so he made a shirt and a hoodie with the logo “I Am Not a Virus.”

Two black t-shirts on mannequins that read "I AM NOT A VIRUS"
Artist and entrepreneur Sai Xiong designed his "I am not a virus" T-shirts in response to a surge of anti-Asian racism fomented by the coronavirus.
Courtesy of Sai Xiong

“I designed this shirt basically to combat the xenophobia and racism and try to bring solidarity to the Asian community,” he said. 

Xiong said he’s glad that something he did specifically for his community is being considered a part of Minnesota’s history. 

Director Whitworth said that in looking back at the flu pandemic of 1918, he sees themes that have reemerged today.

“It's in times like these that we are reminded what we value the most when things slow down or in some cases almost stop,” he said. “I think we are reminded how important core relationships are. I think we're also reminded that we have, within all of us, individually and collectively, a strong desire to be a part of the collective good.”

Whitworth said he’s been heartened and inspired by Minnesotans who are working hard to solve the problems created by the coronavirus. And he’d like to make sure that history remembers them.

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