Indiana Historical Society documenting COVID-19 by collecting public artifacts

By Tabby Fitzgerald 
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s hard to capture a holistic perspective of the past when pieces of it get lost and different sides to the story go untold. 

But when COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic, it presented a unique and rare opportunity to collect history as it happens, said Jody Blankenship, president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society. 

Artist Tracey Jen painted a medicine bottle as a symbol of her hope for a COVID-19 cure. Provided photo.

“This is such a unique and wonderful opportunity, not that COVID is wonderful by any means,” Blankenship said. “It’s horrible, but the opportunity was rare and significant and presented a chance to collect this history as it was happening, which is so unusual.” 

The Indiana Historical Society started collecting submissions from the public on March 25 to understand how the pandemic is changing life in Indiana. The team is collecting writings, paintings and photographs form Hoosiers to document life during the pandemic through their website indianahistory.org. 

So far, historians have collected more than 600 digital items from 310 Hoosiers. There is no limit to the number of items a Hoosier can submit. Once it is safe to go out, the society plans to collect physical items from Hoosiers such as journals and paintings. 

“This has impacted really all Hoosiers,” said Suzanne Hahn, vice president of library and archives. “We felt it was important to begin collecting and trying to get a wide variety of perspectives and experiences documented so that people in the future will have a better understanding of the experiences that we all have been sharing.” 

Hahn said there has already been a range of submissions. Some have been photographs of empty shelves at the grocery store while others have documented e-learning. 

Tracey Jen, of West Lafayette, is one Hoosier who submitted materials to the Indiana Historical Society. Jen is an artist who created a variety of paintings depicting her experience with COVID-19. 

The work by artist Tracey Jen depicts the uncertainty of the pandemic and praying that friends and family stay safe. Provided photo.

Back in February, Jen was in Taiwan visiting family when the pandemic first started spreading around mainland China. Her roommate was in Wuhan, the province in China where the virus broke out, visiting her family until the area went into lockdown.  

“It was a really nervous time because no one knows what’s going to happen next. It’s really uncertain,” Jen said. “My roommate from grad school, her and her family were stuck in place with your friends, and you’re really concerned about how each other is doing.”

In Taiwan, Jen said she saw everyone wearing face masks for the first time – something that wasn’t happening in America. This inspired her first painting, which depicts a crowd of people wearing face masks. 

Jen continued to document her experience and stories she heard through her friends in paintings. Jen then sent her paintings to her friend, Liwen Weng, who added her own music to it. 

After that, Weng suggested sending it to the news. So, Jen did some research and found a link to the Indiana Historical Society and saw they were accepting submissions of Hoosiers’ experience with COVID-19. 

“For me, being an Asian American growing up in Indiana, I don’t see too much of Asians represented in the history books. So, I feel like this is something cool that maybe I could be able to contribute to this,” Jen said. 

Artist Tracey Jen show people wearing masks because she was in Taiwan when the pandemic hit and she witnessed people wearing face coverings to protect themselves. Provided photo.

Once an item is submitted, a team of professionally trained archivists go through each submission and take out any that were submitted as a joke or that are inappropriate. They then add context to the submissions such as where it came from, when it took place and who submitted it. 

“We are not trying to edit the past,” Blankenship said. “People will have different opinions. Some are controversial, some are misguided, some are very factual and based on medical evidence. We don’t edit that because those all provide different perspectives on the same thing.” 

Blankenship said the Indiana Historical Society is aiming to have an in-person exhibit of the COVID-19 artifacts set up by 2030. This will give the public the time to live through the pandemic, and the archivists time to collect stories from Hoosiers about their experience and see how life changes over time. The team plans to continue to collect items for as long as COVID-19 affects Hoosiers. 

“That gives us about a decade to kind of see how things have played out, and to examine COVID, from the time of living in it, but then also 10 years after the fact, how has that changed us as people, as communities, as a larger society,” Blankenship said. 

Tabby Fitzgerald is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. 

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