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How the Minnesota Historical Society is collecting the history of COVID-19 as we’re living it

The ability to capture history in real time could yield a richer historical record than some similar events of the past, when there wasn’t digital technology that made sharing so easy.

Minnesota Zoo ambassador animals have been taking walks in spaces that were supposed to be filled with students on field trips
Minnesota Zoo ambassador animals have been taking walks in spaces that were supposed to be filled with students on field trips.
Submission from Christine Ness/Minnesota Historical Society

Do you know when you’re living through history?

It’s something you wonder sometimes, peering at the faces of the past in the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives: the people picnicking at Minnehaha Falls; working in a lumber camp or taking an oath of citizenship.

That could be you, after a long day treating patients in a hospital ward, hosting a girls’ night over Zoom or celebrating your birthday in self-isolation. In order to document the lives of Minnesotans as they undergo the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Historical Society is soliciting stories, observations, images, sound files and movies that record life during the pandemic, through a form on the organization’s website.

Real-time history

This “History is Now” approach is a bit different than the way the Historical Society has traditionally collected Minnesota’s history, usually after and sometimes long after an event has happened.

But it’s not the first time the organization has worked to document history in more-or-less real time: it solicited wedding photos from couples married the first month of legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. It collected items from Minnesotans who memorialized Prince after his death, and it asked for documentation from residents who participated in the Women’s March in 2017.

But just as there’s no clear end in sight for this pandemic, this time, there’s no end in sight for the collection efforts. Jennifer Huebscher, curator of photography and moving images at the Historical Society, said she and her colleagues are hoping to collect material throughout the pandemic’s stay in the state, to document the way Minnesotans’ lives and attitudes change over time.

They’ve already received a number of COVID-19 submissions.

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In one account, a technology worker from a Twin Cities school district describes the district’s efforts to round up and disseminate technology to students who were beginning distance learning.

“In the end, with less than 12 hours notice, we handed out 2,000 iPads to students as they entered a world where they may not finish their school year with us in our buildings,” the description reads.

In another, a Minnesota Zoo employee describes how staffers at the zoo have worked to safely care for animals in a nearly empty facility. The worker describes taking animals on walks in areas normally filled with students on field trips. It’s so quiet there that the worker could hear the bisons’ footfalls as they ran.

From August 1, 2013: Cathy Abene and Maren Lindner's marriage ceremony officiated by state Sen. Scott Dibble.
Photo by Matthew Crockett/Minnesota Historical Society
From August 1, 2013: Cathy Abene and Maren Lindner's marriage ceremony officiated by state Sen. Scott Dibble.
“13 years at the zoo — it’s never been quiet enough in the middle of the day to hear that,” the worker writes.

Then, there was a submission from a kid who wrote in, bummed that his birthday was this week, when he couldn’t see friends or have a big party.

Huebscher wrote him back with some words of encouragement.

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“It’ll be a different birthday, but it’ll be one you remember. And one you can tell people about when you’re older, how this one was unique and memorable, even if it might not have been the most fun,” she said.

While Huebscher encourages Minnesotans to contribute to the historical record as they go, there are also things historians would love to have when the pandemic is over, like journals and medical equipment (“Obviously we can’t take that now because it’s so desperately needed,” Huebscher said).

“This way, we can approach it from two angles: very much immediate, with photos and quick memories or quick observations. And then also as this goes on and people react over time, and reflect back on how things changed throughout the stay-at-home order, or how they felt when it was coming to the U.S. or coming to Minnesota, I think having that longer-range observation will be beneficial as well.”

Huebscher also suggested that people interested in recording their COVID-19 experiences check in with their county historical society, as some, like Beltrami County, are making similar efforts to collect accounts.

From April 23, 2016: Flowers, balloons, and artwork at the fence of Paisley Park in Chanhassen following the death of Prince.
Photo by Kristine McNamara/Minnesota Historical Society
From April 23, 2016: Flowers, balloons, and artwork at the fence of Paisley Park in Chanhassen following the death of Prince.

A richer record

Hopefully, the ability to capture history in real time will yield a richer historical record than some similar events of the past, when there wasn’t digital technology that made sharing so easy.

Looking back on the 1918 influenza epidemic, there are lots of pictures in the Minnesota Historical Society’s archive of nurses at that time, but it’s not always clear whether they’re World War I nurses, or nurses associated with the flu pandemic, Huebscher said.

Red Cross nurses in 1918.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Red Cross nurses in 1918.
Tuberculosis didn’t shut down the state in quite the same way as the 1918 flu, but it was better documented, with many accounts from state sanatorium patients who suffered from the disease.

The Minnesota Historical Society recently obtained a video documenting the emergence of the polio vaccine. It’s a silent video with a transcript that shows Minnesotans lining up in a Minneapolis middle school to get inoculated in 1960.

Huebscher hopes Minnesotans find some reassurance in these records.

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“I think [there’s] a connection in knowing that this isn’t the first time this has happened. It probably won’t be the last. You know, as Minnesotans, we got through that,” she said.