OOn a table in a back room of New Zealand’s National Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a canvas bag with an image of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as Wonder Woman. Under her armored arms are the words “Go hard & go early” – the early 2020 cry to stem the spread of Covid-19 that has quickly taken over the country.
Next to the bag is a set of three tennis balls, with sentences roughly scribbled in pen: “we don’t consent”; “hands off our children”; “Pfizer kills”. Anti-vaccine mandate protesters threw these balls at journalists during a protest in late 2021, marking the start of growing discontent among some groups about vaccines and the way the pandemic was being managed.
Side by side, the objects represent the storyline of the New Zealand pandemic over two years: from an initial social cohesion not seen since wartime, with a population ready to stand behind their country’s leader, to the unraveling of unity and a shift against mistrust in media and institutions.
The objects are part of Te Papa’s growing Covid-19 history collection, which aims to capture New Zealand’s experience of the pandemic, from the prosaic to the poetic and political.
There is fan art directed at the country’s director of general health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, with his face decorated with a tea towel; there are complicated “viruses” by textile artist Jo Dixey; face masks with embroidered messages; anti-racism T-shirts and posters calling on the country to “stay at home, save lives”.
Some items tell one story, others unleash a broad debate, many objects call and react to each other. For Te Papa, each object – whether scavenged, bought or donated – is a different color in the palette used to paint a portrait of a country going through a pandemic, while still living in the midst of it.
When the nation went into lockdown in March 2020, so did institutions like Te Papa. All purchases came to an abrupt halt, but the museum knew it had to start building a record of the event.
“[We] knew we were in unprecedented, strange times, and it was a historic event,” said Claire Regnault, senior curator.
The team decided on the themes it wanted to document, including life in lockdown, the government’s response, spontaneous community messaging on the city’s streets, Māori perspectives and the experiences of ethnic minorities. Themes broadened as the pandemic progressed and included vaccine roll-out and anti-vaccine sentiment.
“What became apparent was the amount of creativity that took place during the lockdown in response to both the lockdown and concerns about the virus,” said Regnault.
Regnault refers to Dixey’s intricate and beautiful textile sculptures of viruses – some with beads, others made with pearls, nails or wire. “This was a great object because it helps us ‘see’ the virus, or materialize it and then be able to talk about it.”
Other items in the collection aim to show an evolution in style – face masks and personal protective equipment quickly became canvases on which people could project their cultural identity or politics.
“We’re trying to get multiple voices and objects that have multiple points of view,” Regnault says.
For some New Zealanders, the pandemic started long before it reached the coast of New Zealand. Chinese New Zealanders spent months in contact with family and friends in China who were already sick or dying from the virus.
Those experiences, which should have warranted empathy, were instead often drowned out by racist reactions.
“Something that was apparent in our communities was the way the virus was racialized,” said Grace Gassin, Te Papa’s Asian New Zealand History Curator, who ensures the collection reflects these perspectives.
“Viruses have no ethnicity, but there were a lot of conversations from the US with Trump about the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘kung flu’… New Zealand is not an isolated place, we are connected globally, so messages came in as well.”
The experiences of Asian New Zealanders in the collection are not limited to reactions to racism. But two of the most notable items are a T-shirt made by Chinese New Zealand artist Cat Xuechen Xiao, who is originally from Wuhan, decorated with “I’m from Wuhan – this city is not a virus, I am not a virus”, and a T-shirt made by author Helene Wong that reads “I’m not from Wuhan, Drop the Pitchfork”.
Keep memory alive
Art historian and organizer of museums and cultural heritage at the University of Auckland, Linda Tyler, says museums like Te Papa are shifting from an idiosyncratic and colonial attitude to collecting to a more collective and nuanced one.
“These physical objects that represent part of a time and a culture contain memories, and institutions hold our collective memory,” she says.
“We can’t all take responsibility for passing” [these memories] to future generations, so if an institution can do it, it will be of great value to all of us to know who we are and to be able to think about it meaningfully in the future.”
Involving the public in the formation of a collection also gives the population a sense of ownership over the story, she says.
“People are much more compelled by stories of ordinary people like themselves, rather than staring at the riches of kings and queens.”
The Covid-19 collection is a living thing – as the world evolves with the pandemic, so does the exhibit.
Building a collection while still in the middle of an event challenges a curator to anticipate what future generations will want to know from a historic moment, while trying to maintain a level of sensitivity while people are still grappling with the crisis. It also allows collectors to collect objects and ephemera in the moment.
“We’re collecting what we can now – the things we think are interesting or important – but we know that in 10, 30 or 80 years, people will come up to us and say, ‘I got this from my grandma from the Covid pandemic’, so we work with a long view,” says Regnault.
Curators often look to past event material to find out what gaps need to be filled in contemporary collecting and what’s attractive to look back on.
“But sometimes,” Regnault says, “it’s just what you can get your hands on.”