Revisiting NPM Collections in Light of Covid

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"Rapid Response Collecting" is all the rage, and gathering new pandemic-related objects for our collections grabs a lot of media attention. But what about collection objects that predate the current COVID pandemic? When we finally return to our museums, Smithsonian curators will carry with them the things they have learned during their forced isolation and appraise their existing collections through new eyes. Presentation by Chief Curator Daniel A. Piazza to the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars panel “Questions Raised by COVID: Working in the Humanities” explores three NPM objects and offers thoughts on how they might be reinterpreted post-COVID.

Webinar recorded Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

Chief Curator Daniel A. Piazza: A lot of curatorial energy and discussion around the institution lately has been focused on COVID-19 and all the questions around how to make sure that this moment in our collective history is represented in our collections, and represented in the best way possible for future exhibition and research and scholarship.

And understandably, I think the lion's share of that attention has been focused on getting new stuff, right? Rapid response, collecting initiatives are sexy.

You can't get around that.

They capture media attention, they show that the institution is relevant to current affairs as well as historical events.

And I understand the attraction of them.

I get all that.

And the National Postal Museum is engaged in that enterprise right now, too.

But this afternoon, I wanted to step back a little bit, take a different tack, and shift attention away from the new stuff, if only briefly, to engage in a little out-loud thinking about how we might begin re-interpreting existing collections in the aftermath of the pandemic.

So when, ultimately, we all return to our museums and our collections, both curators and visitors will have been transformed by this experience of having lived through, what I think is safe at this point to say, is kind of a generational watershed moment.

So we'll come back to exhibits and collections that will not really have changed at all, but we will have changed, and our visitors will have changed, and our visitors will be experiencing our content, I think, through new eyes.

And the National Postal Museum, in some ways, I think, offers a very interesting case study.

The day-to-day operations of the postal service, that is the acceptance and the handling and the delivery operations of the postal system, adapted pretty quickly to social distancing requirements.

And the postal system has been functioning, more or less, normally since the pandemic began with remarkably little disruption, and the disruptions that have occurred have been fairly localized.

So in one sense, there's relatively little to collect in this area, from an operational standpoint.

And much is what is...

Much of what is available in the postal space is very similar to what I presume other units will be collecting.

That is, masks and personal protective equipment and signage and so forth.

On the other hand, the Coronavirus crisis has prompted, I think millions, of people to look at our museum's entire content area in a new way.

So precisely because postal operations have been mostly unaffected, and things are proceeding, more or less, normally with regard to the mail, people are re-evaluating the importance of mail in their personal lives.

So just a few short months ago, I think many people would probably have said that they believe they could live without a postal service or with a significantly reduced postal service.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the daily mail has become a lifeline for people.

Its arrival brings not only a desperately-needed sense of normalcy in chaotic times, but it brings groceries and prescriptions, supplies, books for distance learning, things like this.

Here's something actually...

I just learned about today, although it's been going on for about 12 or so weeks now, is the Department of Agriculture distributing replacement school lunches to children in rural areas through the mail.

They're using the mail, sending nonperishable replacement lunch items and distributing them that way, so this is from a mail processing and distribution center.

All these...

These are all pallets of school lunches.

And people are seeing their postal workers now as frontline essential employees, and much of their activity on the front lines is enabling a lot of the sheltering in place that the rest of us are doing.

So I think people are...

Have come to a new appreciation of the role of mail in their lives.

Not just in this way.

I think Americans are also currently examining the role that mail can play in our shared national and civic life.

So earlier this year, for example, a significant portion of the census was conducted by mail, and the results of that census will have important effects both for congressional representation and the appropriation of federal funds.

Several local and special elections have been conducted almost entirely by mail already, and the general election this fall appears to be headed that way too.

So the opportunities and problems that are presented by this method of voting are going to be, I think, a major news story for the rest of the year.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, the very existence of the debate itself, I think, echoes the founders' vision that the post office should contribute to an informed citizenry and a deeper public engagement in the political process.

These are some, I think, profound attitudinal shifts that are both incredibly important to a place like the National Postal Museum for us to document and collect, but also they're incredibly difficult to collect in traditional ways.

They're metaphysical, in a sense, some of these attitudinal shifts, and it's difficult to document them through traditional objects.

So we'll be working with the unions to collect oral histories, photographs, and objects from postal employees who worked through the crisis, getting the perspectives of clerks and letter carriers in both rural areas and the urban hotspots, as well as, as far as possible, the customers they serve.

And also look at it from the standpoint of the stories of postal HQ staff who worked on the crisis management team.

We'll be looking to acquire things like ballots and other material documenting this trend toward voting by mail.

Letters, cards, communications sent and received during the quarantine, including these expressions of thanks addressed to postal workers for their work on the front lines.

And we'll do all of this work to ensure, as we all do, that in years to come, Smithsonian exhibitions will reflect this moment in history and make possible the scholarly research, the public education, the online interpretation that we all engage in.

But in addition to this new material, I think there will be opportunities for us to reinterpret items in all of our collections, since visitors onsite and online will now be coming to them with this experience, an experience that the country hasn't truly seen really in generations.

So curators and visitors alike, I think, will be more attuned to, and perhaps empathetic toward objects that have this history attached to them.

So for example, we're all approaching the semi-quincentennial...

I'll never quite get my tongue around that word.

But the 250th anniversary of the United States.

And there are opportunities, perhaps, to reinterpret the American Revolution in terms of disease and contagion.

The nation was founded in the midst of a smallpox epidemic that raged through, virtually, the whole war.

One of the, I think, very glorious items in NPM's collection is this April 1778 letter that was sent from the desperate winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to a merchant in Connecticut, asking for supplies on credit for the troops who were encamped there in the Delaware Valley.

Barely a year ago, I featured this piece in an exhibit that I curated on Alexander Hamilton, and I focused on the sender, Quartermaster General Nathaniel Greene, whose signature is down there in the lower left-hand corner of the, of the front of the letter.

I focused on the sender and his role in bringing Hamilton's abilities to General Washington's attention during this very encampment, but I could easily see that future exhibition and interpretation of this letter would focus on the circumstances that led to Washington's retreat to Valley Forge in the first place, partially because he wanted to isolate his army from the smallpox that was raging then through Philadelphia and Trenton, and the inoculation experiments that went on there at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 to '78.

Barely mentioned this context to this letter in previous interpretations because it wasn't really top of mind in putting this letter in historical context, but I think going forward now, it would be.

One of our permanent exhibits is called "In Times of Trouble," and it contains this great artifact from the last quarter of the 19th century, which was dominated by periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, and even, as late as the early 20th century, outbreaks of bubonic plague.

Germ theory was then in its infancy, as Katherine said earlier, and viruses had only recently been discovered.

Many people still believed that diseases were spread by bad air.

That's where we get the word "malaria" from, and it was a common practice dating back already several centuries by this time, by the end of the 19th century, of perforating and fumigating mail, usually with sulfuric or even mercuric vapors.

This was thought to disinfect the mail because the mail was feared to be a vector of these...

Of all these diseases.

And so this is from, I believe, Alabama in the last quarter of the 19th century in the U.S.

Here's a much earlier example from 1774.

This was from one of those lazarettos that Katherine mentioned earlier.

This was outside Marseilles.

And this particular letter has the vertical slits on both sides and the extreme kind of discoloration that are characteristic of having been fumigated, or "disinfected," as it was called at the time, in one of these lazarettos.

And in some ways, we're still dealing with the misunderstandings of contagion and spread prevention, misunderstandings that, in some ways, are not so different from the late 18th century.

And then the last piece is one of the most recent, kind of, quarantine or disease-related pieces I could find, if you leave aside the anthrax scare from the early 21st century, which was deliberately introduced into the mail stream.

This is from 1926, a letter from Brookline, Massachusetts, addressed to a passenger onboard the Cunard line steamship Franconia, which was arriving in New York, September 19th, 1926.

and it's been stamped "Sent to Quarantine." So this particular passenger was probably examined by the public health authorities at the quarantine station in Staten Island in New York or at Ellis Island and remanded to quarantine for a period of time.

And the mail was marked "Sent to Quarantine" so that they could...

It would be forwarded on, and they could receive it wherever they had...

Wherever this particular passenger had been quarantined.

All of our mail might've received this marking for the last 12 to 15 weeks or so.

Maybe we should bring back this particular marking.

But I think there are,...

Although I don't...

I haven't done the research yet to know exactly who this passenger was and why they were quarantined, we can, at least...

At the very least, come back to this piece with a little bit of empathy for what Mrs.

CJ Davison may have experienced in quarantine on an island in New York Harbor in the 1920s.