In mid-March, museum curators and archivists confined to their homes were presented with an interesting challenge: How do you document such a profound moment as it’s happening? How will we remember this time of uncertainty? “Archivists are always thinking about things in context,” says Julie Wroblewski, head of collections at the Chicago History Museum. “Something that’s happening today has roots that stretch back months, decades, even hundreds of years. It didn’t just happen. It has come out of all the things that went before it.”
On April 16, the Chicago History Museum launched the In This Together project, which collects digital submissions documenting the COVID-19 pandemic, from diary entries to self-portraits to full oral histories. The database of more than 350 submissions is filled with poignant and whimsical accounts of socially distanced birthday parties, Zoom reunions, mask-sewing clubs, original songs inspired by quarantine, and communal sourdough starters.
“History is about the lives of everyday people,” Wroblewski said. ‘‘We try to emphasize at the museum that history isn’t just about the big famous names — it’s about the lives of everyday people. Those stories matter … and they’re just as important to preserve.”
Though the museum has since reopened, the collections team is holding off on accepting physical submissions, such as masks. Loyola University Chicago, the University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago are soliciting similar online contributions.
Yet on the Chicago History Museum map of submissions, nearly every entry is from the North Side or the suburbs. The one South Side submission is from Hyde Park, and there are none from the West Side. Wroblewski speculates that the omission might be due to the claim that residents of the South and West Sides are less likely to have computer access and go to museums. She says that the museum is putting together an outreach plan by zip code to reach Black and Latino communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but not represented by this historical record.
Cataloging Black history has always been a challenge, largely owing to the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans. Aiming to rectify this erasure are the Blackivists, a collective of Black archivists formed in 2018 to document and celebrate Black heritage.
Stacie Williams, a Blackivists member and director of the Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago Library, refers to her philosophy of archiving as “memory work.” It’s intended to be inclusive of not just scholars, but people who dedicate themselves to cultural preservation outside of academia.
“As underrepresented folks, we have not always had access to the documentation,” Williams says about archives and historical records. “We have even been barred from creating the documentation. Even just the act of stopping people from learning how to read or write, or making it illegal or punishable, stops people from being able to communicate their stories. Memory work as a term respects the ways that Black people have been traditionally locked out of those spaces.”
The Blackivists have consulted with the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party on oral history preservation and collaborated with the Black feminist performing-arts group Honey Pot Performance on the Chicago Black Social Culture Map, which has showcased the history of house music and, by extension, the migration of Black queer communities across the city.
The Blackivists have also become invaluable as a support group for Black scholars among the uprisings sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “The work doesn’t come without risk or secondhand trauma,” Williams says. “The uprisings, as absolutely galvanizing as they are to view as an image or on video, have also been sites of trauma. In those instances, we are looking to support each other as peers.”
On June 6, the collective cosigned a statement in solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement. “We reject attempts to document this moment that fails to center the Black experience or that fails to document the facts about the State’s role in inflicting Black pain,” reads the open letter. “We commit to archival practices that support accountability and historical accuracy because when the dust settles attempts will be made to rewrite the history.”
In response to the protests against police violence, historical preservationists like Chicago Collections Consortium and Black Metropolis Research Consortium have re-upped their existing digital protest archives for educational purposes.
“Are we repeating history? Are we making a change?” Jeanne Long, executive director of Chicago Collections Consortium, asks. “I think responsible sharing of history forces people to acknowledge [complacency] and brings a cause for action.”
The most prestigious institution taking up this call is the Newberry Library, which began promoting digital submissions to its protest collection. The archive was originally created for the Women’s March in 2017 and now carries items like buttons, zines, and signs from the protests of President Trump’s Muslim ban, the March for Science, and earlier Black Lives Matter actions.
Privacy is a serious concern when documenting protests, as many activists charge that the police use photos of protestors as retaliation. To help with the effort, the Blackivists released safety guidelines around documenting protests, which include data privacy protections and anonymizing photographs of protestors.
Alison Hinderliter, a curator of modern manuscripts and archives at the Newberry, says the library is sensitive to concerns over facial recognition technology and is willing to blur protestors’ faces in images and videos submitted. The Newberry also lets activists restrict access to their digital records for five years, an estimate to remove the fear of immediate retaliation from law enforcement.
All of these modern-day submissions share space with other archival documents at the Newberry. Hinderliter points to the 133-year-old research institution’s manuscript collections that stretch back to the women’s suffrage, temperance, and civil rights movements.
“This is a continuum in our effort to document human rights demonstrations for as far back as we can and as far forward as we can,” Hinderliter says. “It’s not often that you have a pandemic, an economic depression, and a massive outcry against racism and police brutality like we have right now. This is a really historic moment nationwide, and we want people to know what happened in Chicago.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.