How Ontario museums are documenting history in the making

Museums, townships, and historical societies across the province know we’re living in unprecedented times — so they’re thinking about what future generations will need to know
By Dylan Freeman-Grist - Published on May 28, 2020
Museums of Burlington is currently accepting digital submissions from residents. (Facebook/Museums of Burlington)

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Friday the 13th was the last time the staff of the Oshawa Museum were all together. It was the last day before provincewide school closures were set to extend March break by two weeks. The effort to stem the growing number of coronavirus cases was the topic of discussion as the team gathered one last time in the lunchroom.

“I then spent the week of March Break kind of watching different things — dominos falling, kind of,” Jennifer Weymark, an archivist with the museum, recalls. “I was looking at how the community was being impacted more and more and thought, ‘This is going to be huge, and it's something that I have to make sure that we document.’”

Collections workers across Ontario came to a similar realization — they’d been presented with the challenge of collecting history as it unfolds. So, as the province shut down, local museums, townships, and historical societies began developing and implementing COVID-19 collection strategies.

As an archivist, Weymark's primary job is to chronicle the human history of Oshawa. Typically, this means her time is spent securing, preserving, and researching various records: the photographs, letters, journals, and diaries that bring the city to life. But now, a task usually bound to the past has been thrust into the present.

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“I'm looking at the 1918 Spanish-flu epidemic, I'm looking at World War One and even World War Two, to an extent, and asking what is it that researchers really wish we had to better understand the impact of those monumental events on the everyday person,” Weymark explains.

Oshawa Museum has launched an online initiative, COVID-19 in Oshawa, a platform that encourages residents to submit their own records, all of which will be preserved and collected for future generations.

Other organizations across the province have launched similar initiatives. Chris Selman, a curator with Museums of Burlington, is helping his team coordinate the effort in his region, which is currently also accepting digital submissions from residents.

After COVID-19, Selman, who usually focuses on the collection of physical artifacts that tell the story of Burlington, began working to document, through photographs, various objects that represent Burlington’s response to the pandemic — for example, store signs announcing temporary closures, and pebbles and rocks painted with inspirational messages.

“Originally, we were only supposed to be closed for three weeks; we'd hoped that was going to be the end,” Selman notes. “When we went beyond that initial three weeks, that's when I really started looking toward physically collecting objects on a greater scale.”

So far, Selman has officially collected only one object: a shirt sold by Burlington Frontline Clap, a community group that has been organizing community-appreciation initiatives for front-line workers. The group is currently selling the shirts to support Joseph Brant Hospital.

While digital records can be easily handed off to cultural institutions, collecting artifacts is more complicated, requiring official documentation by way of a receipt or donation agreement so that the institution can prove ownership and hold the object in the public trust.

“If you are interested in donating an object, just reach out,” Selman says. “There are still people manning the telephones, manning emails. Even if you want to donate an object and it doesn't fit with the museum that you reached out to, museums, museum workers, are going to try their best to help you out.”

Erika Baird, the heritage and cultural-centre supervisor at Parks, Recreation and Culture for the Township of King, notes that it’s important for each town and city to document their response to the crisis in some way. “Every community has differences in their own perspective,” she says. “Especially a place like King, where we have small villages and hamlets … it's going to be a very different experience than, say, people in Toronto.”

Like many other institutions across the province, the King Heritage & Cultural Centre is offering to seal donated records for however long a donor requests in order to ensure privacy. The aim is to provide a detailed resource so that future Ontarians will be able to better contextualize the community and local responses to COVID-19.

“When you're thinking about something to share, think, ‘Why is this going to be interesting to people in 100 years?’” Barid says. “And, more importantly, ‘Why is this important to me?’”

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