top of page

Collecting in the time of Covid-19

“What was it like during the great coronavirus pandemic, mummy?” In years to come, we should not be surprised to find our children asking probing questions about Covid-19. But how to convey the emotional impact of the lockdowns and the widespread disruption to schools and social life? 

At the Science Museum, in London, curators have begun collecting objects and artefacts in an effort to capture this extraordinary moment in medical and social history. In the museum’s medical galleries, you can currently see the lectern from the Downing Street press conference carrying the message “Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives” and the syringe that was used to administer the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine to the first British recipient, Margaret Keenan.  

The museum has also been acquiring original artworks, such as Grayson Perry’s ceramic jar depicting the traumatic lockdown experiences of his alter ego, Alan Measles, and Roxanna Hall’s extraordinary portrait of the mortuary worker, Katie Tomkins, created as part of the Portraits for NHS Heroes project (below ). 

As Natasha McEnroe, the museum’s keeper of medicine, explained at the workshop, Collecting in the time of Covid-19, acquiring these objects in the midst of a global pandemic was uniquely stressful. Objects had to be acquired quickly before they were destroyed and ethical clearances had to be obtained for sensitive medical material – and all while the museum’s curatorial team was struggling with illness and the disruption to its usual working patterns. 

The aim, McEnroe told the workshop, was nothing less than “to provide a permanent record for future generations of the medical, scientific, industrial cultural and personal responses to the outbreak and its impact on society”. However, given that it is impossible to collect everything, the Science Museum concentrated on four key thematic areas: testing, vaccination, communication and social inequality. 


Roxana Halls' portrait of mortuary worker Katie Tomkins.

“I’ve worked in museums for over thirty years and I can safely say that this has been the toughest and most challenging task of my career,” said McEnroe. “Inevitably, a lot of it was reactive: spotting stuff as offers were made and quickly grabbing them.”  

One reason McEnroe was keen to gather the objects is that her predecessors had done a poor job of documenting previous pandemics. For instance, the  museum’s collections contain virtually no artefacts from the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic – a pandemic which, like Covid, swept round the globe in successive waves, upending social life and killing some 50 million people. 

McEnroe was particularly keen to collect objects reflecting the impact of Covid-19 on people from different social and ethnic backgrounds. A good example is health pack created by the Caribbean and African Health Network (CAHN) in Manchester. 


The workshop also heard from Tina Eyre at the Bodleian History of Science Museum, who has been collecting objects and stories documenting Oxford University’s response to the pandemic, and Mel Grant at the Wellcome Collection who has been collecting “perzines” documenting the pandemic’s impact on addiction and mental health. The Science Museum is also in the process of acquiring a collection of notebooks compiled by students at the University of Sheffield, documenting their experiences of loneliness during the pandemic. 


Although no museum can document every aspect of the pandemic, it is hoped that by preserving a wide range of objects and ensuring that as many voices as possible are represented these collections will become an important resource for remembering Covid-19 in years to come.


*Collecting Covid-19 was the second of three workshops funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and convened jointly with the Science Museum on the theme of “Commemorating Covid, Remembering Pandemics”. 


To see the presentations and listen to the workshop discussion click here [link coming soon]. 

Workshop Audio - Part 1
00:00 / 25:25
Workshop Audio - Part 2
00:00 / 15:10
Workshop Audio - Part 3
00:00 / 26:00
Workshop Audio - Part 4
00:00 / 04:48
bottom of page