In response to the current unprecedented public health situation, curator of exhibits Devorah Romanek at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at The University of NewMexico is creating a new and rapidly evolving virtual exhibition COVID-19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness that provides historical and anthropological contexts on the current challenges and helpful information for New Mexico residents.
Throughout the process, the site will provide factual information and resources regarding the current pandemic, and consider other pandemics and epidemics past and present, different approaches to health and wellness, cultural, geographic and group and personal responses to widespread illness. The site will also share stories, collections, and research through all of the museum’s digital platforms.
“I have for some years been doing a series of exhibitions at the Maxwell, live in the museum as opposed to online, called ‘Current Issues in Anthropology.’ About two weeks ago, as I was musing on how the museum might respond to the spreading pandemic, a friend of mine, Mimi Roberts, retired director for media projects for the state Department of Cultural Affairs and currently an independent curator, posted on her social media about wanting to do an exhibition on this topic, as well as posting an article on the topic from the American Association of Museums.
"So I just made up my mind there an then to do an online exhibition, anticipating the need to close the museum, reached out to Mimi - who is contributing content to the exhibition, and to various other people and institutions to get the ball rolling.”
Romanek explained that museums are places where visitors encounter, explore, and engage with objects, ideas, and topics that are new, familiar, or challenging. And they are places where people can gather safely. In the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the museum will extend its mission with this online exhibition about the current pandemic and different ways to know about it and look at it.
“Anthropology is the study of humans and human behavior, past and present, with an eye toward imaging futures,” she said. “Since humans are being human in an ongoing fashion, cultural anthropologists such as myself are ever observing human behavior and human culture as it plays out in real time.
"The difference perhaps of doing real-time reporting out on observations as opposed to more traditional anthropological studies is that typically such studies make observations over lengths of time, often great long years of time, collecting data and taking great care and time in analysis of data, whereas, with taking a look at current issues, there is not as much time to analyze data and offer specific thoughts on that with great depth.”
The project will help people get a historical perspective.
For this project, Romanek said, “I’m collecting observations in real-time and reflecting them back to a public for wider discussion in the moment, without necessarily drawing the conclusions or offering the analysis that some longer studies might or would. However, in coupling real-time information with historical information, such as this exhibition will be doing, it allows for people to reflect on the current moment in relation to the past, as many of the ‘Current Issues in Anthropology’ exhibitions have done.
"Offering the opportunity for visitors, in this case virtual visitors, to observe the present moment in relation to what we know about the past might help people feel informed, engaged and grounded, and that is not such a bad thing at a time like this.”
This exhibition will couple images, text, and images of objects, and recording and video, which presents challenges.
“We don't have anyone who does digital work at the museum. I do the design for exhibits in-house, and work with a student to do graphics for exhibitions and other needs, and the museum director of public programs Mary Beth Hermans does content for our website.
"So, although I am not a digital expert, I am working with our graphics student, Gabriel Raab-Faber, to create an online exhibition. He is a UNM Architecture grad student and a total gem. All of this to say, the exhibition will look sharp. But it is a challenge for me and Gabe, emailing and texting to build the website, and I am developing content and design as we go.”
The exhibition is not currently interactive, but will have interactive components in so far as members of the public will be able to contribute content.
“We have a section called ‘Your Story’ in which we will collect personal stories and images from people who are living through the pandemic now, and post that, short posts, changing it regularly ̶ possibly daily if we can manage that.
The virtual exhibition is in early days yet so Romanek suggests online visitors keep checking back for new content. Anyone who would like to share their story can email to Romanek with the short story (150 words or less) and one or two images to publish on the website. She cannot guarantee the museum will publish every story, but will publish as many as possible.