Three Berkshire County institutions are collaborating on a new project to document life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anne-Marie Harris is the Local History & Melville Collections Acting Supervisor at the Berkshire Athenaeum. She says the undertaking began with a question about the last time a pandemic ravaged the region.
“What happened in 1918? Other than newspaper articles, there was really no collecting of any kind of material to show what the times were actually like," she told WAMC. "So we decided that – Jeff Rodgers, who is the head of the museum and Lesley Herzberg and I at the library – had decided that maybe we should look at some objects and some memories and give some insight in how your life or the community’s life has changed over this COVID-19 pandemic.”
That thinking spawned The Berkshire COVID Collecting Project, which invites county residents to digitally submit slices of life during the pandemic to the historical record.
“So for example, if we show masks and maybe some home school plans and some Zoom shots, that maybe we would be able to show and remind people what the social and economic impact of what we just went through with COVID-19, how that affected our community,” explained Harris.
“Sometimes we’re receiving something that someone’s written. They’ve sat back and contemplated and really thought about what it means to be living during this time," said Lesley Herzberg, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society. “We’ve received photographs, we’ve received a screenshot of someone’s virtual birthday party. Someone sent us something where they said they had organized a bear hunt in Dalton, Massachusetts so that people kind of displayed bears – stuffed bears or pictures of bears – in their windows or somewhere on their property so that kids could walk around the neighborhood and look for these bears. So, something for kids to do that was socially distanced.”
The project has raised some questions about what constitutes an artifact in today’s fast-paced world.
“I just taught a museum studies class and we talked about tweets – are tweets?" asked Herzberg. "Because they’re capturing a historic moment in time. It was yesterday, but that’s history.”
“Part of the remarkable thing that we’ve seen happening around us is the way that people have been communicating digitally," said Berkshire Museum executive director Jeff Rodgers. “And it can be so ephemeral – these things can disappear into the internet and you see them one day and they’re gone the next. So we wanted to be able to capture the visuals, the songs, the skits, the plays, the voices, the monologues – but also the physical things that people have created. The things they’ve painted, drawn, sculpted – their arts, their crafts.”
“Eventually we will be looking for physical objects, but we don’t have the capacity right now to take those in. We might do that when it’s a bit safer," said Herzberg. “We are looking to create a repository for this information. It will be accessible to us at the museums and the Athenaeum at the moment, but we do hope that eventually it will become kind of held in a public trust for the people of Berkshire County, to be able to go and access that. And we hope that maybe down the line, we might look to do some kind of exhibit and other programmatic offerings surrounding the submissions.”
For more on The Berkshire COVID Collecting Project and how to contribute to it, click here.