Vaccine vials and a virtual hug: a history of coronavirus in 15 objects

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Museums all around the world are collecting Covid-related material. At one level, this is hardly surprising: this is a global transformative event and future generations will need to see what it did to us, how we tried to cope. But they should also be given praise for doing it at a time when they are all locked down. For most, the collecting process – usually an online callout for objects allied to more proactive spotting of themes and requesting of material – started in March or April last year at just the time museums were closing their doors and curators were taking to their laptops at home.

The example of how not to do it is the great flu pandemic of 1918-20, another global transformative event that killed tens of millions but does not figure much in museum collections. People were either too exhausted after four years of war or too traumatised by having another catastrophe to cope with to record it. “The collection I look after has over 150,000 objects covering many different areas,” says Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the Science Museum in London, “yet you could count the items relating to Spanish flu on one hand.”

The Science Museum and other institutions were determined to do better this time round, although this too has had its own challenges. McEnroe says she and her team haven’t been able to make the usual site visits to lo

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