In mid-March, museum curators and home-bound archivists were presented with an interesting challenge: How do you document such a profound moment as it unfolds? How will we remember this time of uncertainty? “Archivists always think about things in context,” says Julie Wroblewski, collections manager at the Chicago History Museum. “Something happening today has roots stretching back months, decades, even hundreds of years. It didn’t happen on its own. It grew out of all the things that came before it.
On April 16, the Chicago History Museum kicked off the In This Together Project, which collects digital submissions documenting the COVID-19 pandemic, from journal entries to self-portraits to full oral histories. The database of over 350 submissions is filled with poignant and whimsical tales of socially distant birthday parties, Zoom reunions, mask-sewing clubs, quirky forties-inspired songs, and common sourdough starters.
“The story is about the lives of ordinary people,” Wroblewski said. We try to emphasize at the museum that history isn’t just about big, famous names – it’s about the lives of ordinary people. These stories matter… and it is just as important to preserve them.
Although the museum has since reopened, the collections team does not accept physical submissions, such as masks. Loyola University of Chicago, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago are soliciting similar online contributions.
Yet on the Chicago History Museum’s submissions map, almost all of the entries are from the north side or from the suburbs. The only South Side submission is from Hyde Park, and there is none from the West Side. Wroblewski speculates that the omission could be due to the claim that residents of the south and west sides are less likely to have access to a computer and go to museums. She says the museum is developing a postal code outreach plan to reach black and Latino communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but not represented by this historic record.
Cataloging black history has always been a challenge, in large part because of the slavery and subjugation of African Americans. The Blackivists, a collective of black archivists formed in 2018 to document and celebrate black heritage, aim to rectify this erasure.
Stacie Williams, Fellow of the Blackivists and Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago Library, calls her archiving philosophy a “work of memory.” It is intended to include not only academics, but also those dedicated to cultural preservation outside of academia.
“As underrepresented people, we haven’t always had access to documentation,” Williams says of archives and historical documents. “We were even banned from creating the documentation. Even the simple act of preventing people from learning to read or write, or making it illegal or punishable, prevents people from being able to communicate their stories. Memory work as a term respects the way black people have traditionally been excluded from these spaces. “
The Blackivists consulted the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party on Preserving Oral History and collaborated with black feminist performing arts group Honey Pot Performance on Chicago’s Black Social Culture Map, which showcased the history of house music and, by extension, the migration of black queer communities across the city.
Blackivists have also become invaluable as a support group for black academics amid the uprisings sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “The job doesn’t come without risk and secondary trauma,” says Williams. “The uprisings, as absolutely galvanizing as they are to see in images or videos, were also places of trauma. In these cases, we seek to support each other as peers. “
On June 6, the collective co-signed a declaration of solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement. “We reject attempts to document this moment that fails to focus the black experience or that does not document the facts about the role of the state in the suffering of blacks,” the open letter read. “We are committed to archival practices that support accountability and historical accuracy, because when the dust settles attempts will be made to rewrite history. “
In response to protests against police violence, historical curators like the Chicago Collections Consortium and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium have reorganized their existing digital protest archives for educational purposes.
“Are we repeating history? Are we changing? Jeanne Long, executive director of the Chicago Collections Consortium, asks. “I think responsible sharing of the story forces people to recognize [complacency] and brings a cause of action.
The most prestigious institution responding to this call is the Newberry Library, which has started promoting digital submissions to its protest collection. The archive was originally created for the Women’s March in 2017 and now contains items such as buttons, zines and placards from President Trump’s protest against Muslims, the March for Science. and the prior actions of Black Lives Matter.
Confidentiality is a major concern when documenting protests, as many activists accuse police of using photos of protesters in retaliation. To help with the effort, the Blackivists have issued security guidelines for documenting protests, which include protecting data privacy and anonymizing photographs of protesters.
Alison Hinderliter, curator of modern manuscripts and archives at Newberry, said the library was sensitive to concerns about facial recognition technology and was prepared to blur the faces of protesters in the images and videos submitted. The Newberry also allows activists to restrict access to their digital records for five years, an estimate to eliminate fear of immediate retaliation from law enforcement.
All of these modern submissions share space with other archival material at Newberry. Hinderliter points to the 133-year-old research institution’s manuscript collections that date back to the women’s suffrage, temperance, and civil rights movements.
“This is a continuum in our efforts to document human rights protests as far as possible and as far as possible,” Hinderliter said. “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. It’s a truly 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 on the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project on PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.