Smithsonian Archives of American Art Gathers an Oral History of 2020Historians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, PRESERVATION, archives, art history, primary sources, COVID-19
As the pandemic set in this spring, the historians and curators at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art began doing what they do best: looking through relics of history.
They found little information related to the 1918 flu pandemic in their archives, and decided to make sure that future historians would have a lot more material about this time of the coronavirus. So a team at the Archives of American Art, led by Liza Kirwin, its interim director, set out to create a thorough record for posterity.
Beginning last spring, curators and oral historians from the archives conducted Zoom interviews with 85 artists to create the “Pandemic Oral History Project.” The first round of interviews, which includes such artists as Ed Bereal and Sheila Hicks, was released on Monday.
“It started right at the beginning of May and we were thinking just about Covid-19,” said Ben Gillespie, the Arlene and Robert Kogod Secretarial Scholar for Oral History. Then, with the news of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he said, “we also realized this is such an important moment in American history to really hold on to.”
Though there are many things that represent 2020 — odd objects, pandemic-related ephemera, photographs being gathered by many or put on social media — this Smithsonian oral history project also offers a guarantee: The recordings are meant to last.
The project is unusual for a group of archivists who typically work on long, in-depth, documentary-quality interviews that delve into the past — these sessions are all on Zoom and run 20 minutes to an hour. But working rapidly to preserve the present also allowed the staff to see this year through fresh eyes.
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