LOS ANGELES — The rapid shuttering of museums across the United States due to COVID-19 has had devastating consequences, leading to many losing their jobs and institutions losing millions of dollars. In the best case scenarios, those who still have their jobs are creatively pooling their resources to come up with new and unusual ways to stay connected with audiences when they can’t physically visit museum collections.
That’s the case at the Autry Museum of the American West, located in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, which has thankfully not furloughed or laid off any staff as of yet. And in the throes of the pandemic, the museum’s curators have come together to devise an exciting archival project.
In an announcement that went out on April 27, the museum is asking anyone based in the American West to send images of objects that have taken on a particular significance during this quarantine period. In particular, the museum is interested in collecting images of face masks, recipes, home photos, and journal entries. They will post submissions on their blog, the Autry Files, and might even reach out to you personally if they wish to physically acquire your object down the line.
“History is being made NOW,” reads the announcement for the project, titled “Collecting Community History: A Regional Collections Initiative of Exploration and Preservation.” It continues, “COVID-19 has altered our daily lives in ways that are profound and will shape our behavior, communities, and society for generations to come.” The museum hopes to document this change in real-time.
According to Autry curator Tyree Boyd-Pates, the museum was inspired by the campaign “Save Our African American Treasures,” launched in 2008 and spearheaded by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. This initiative similarly turned to “community archival sourcing” to collect African American ephemera. Over email, Boyd-Pates wrote, “We […] think we can contribute to recording the collective national memory of where the country stood in the middle of this crisis.”
Already, the Autry has received some delightfully unique submissions.
Añalisa Siemsen-McQuaide sent a photo of her and her daughter in glam face masks, which they had made on the occasion of the Met Gala, which like everything else was postponed (social media reveals that these ladies were not the only ones decked out that day). “It was for our daughters to have something to work on to take their minds off of being ‘stuck in the house’ and have a reason to dress up and feel fancy,” writes Siemsen-McQuaide.
Brighid Pulskamp has, in her words, been “handcrafting Native expressive masks” made from ribbon and beads. The image she submitted is of a mask that will be donated to a scholarship fundraiser for American Indian students in higher education. “It’s something that I have control over — being able to do a small part to try to help keep others safe,” Pulskamp says. “I believe we are all connected and our actions have an effect in the situation.”
Of the submissions received so far, the journal entries are particularly memorable. One documents a first-grader’s school assignment on the first day of remote learning in mid-March. The student, Franklin Wong, expresses himself with the charming handwriting of a six-year-old: “I did not go anywhere because it rand all day so we playd indoors. Also we did dat because the vires […]”
Another journal entry submitted by Tanya Gibb documents her daily progress with COVID-19 — from “sickness begins” on March 5, to “still sick,” “sick in hospital,” and “released back home” on March 25. Along the way, you can see the various events that were likely penciled in weeks or months in advance that Gibb had to cross out or write “cancelled” below.
The Communications & Digital Marketing Manager at the Autry Museum, Keisha Reines, sent in a picture of one of the meals she’s cooked during quarantine: chicken estufao, “a Chamorro dish which is similar to Filipino adobo.” Reines shared, “During shelter in place, I’ve craved recipes that feel like home.”
In the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, photojournalist Sally Ryan has been photographing her neighbors and interviewing them over the phone or email about their experiences during the pandemic. “The photographs were made with a window separating the camera from the people to symbolize the social distancing we’re all undergoing,” Ryan explains.
And in a moment of levity and hope, Tori and Scott Tingley Ryan sent a photo documenting their celebration of their one-year wedding anniversary on May 3. Tori writes, “We wanted to capture the moment as best we could so we put our wedding clothes back on and had a photo shoot with our homemade masks and our dog, Minnie.”