The Strange Lives of Objects in the Coronavirus Era


Surfacing

The pandemic has inspired a flurry of new and novel items — and given ordinary ones new meanings.

Plastic bubbles that hover over restaurant tables. Rods for contactless elevator-button-pushing. Portable seats that attach to lampposts, for shoppers waiting outside crowd-controlled stores. Dresses with skirts that have a six-foot radius. Podlike enclosures to keep gym-goers separate. A plastic sleeve that enables hugging at nursing homes. Masks in every imaginable form.

A set of new objects has emerged in the last few months to address the new reality of illness, lockdown, social distancing and social protest. Some of these objects are wacky and unrealized — speculative concepts that may never see the light of day. Others, like cocktails-in-a-bag, thermometers and all manner of partitions, are already circulating widely. And some aren’t new at all: familiar household items like bottles of Lysol and rolls of toilet paper, which have taken on new meaning and importance because of scarcity or sudden unusual needs.

“I’m thinking a lot about what these objects are going to say about the pandemic in the future,” said Anna Talley, a master’s student in the history of design at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. Talley and a fellow student, Fleur Elkerton, have compiled an expansive online archive called Design in Quarantine. Some of these objects are whimsical, or a little ridiculous, like an ultra-large “distancing” crown distributed by a German Burger King in May. Others are the heartbreaking artifacts of illness and mass death, economic collapse and crisis.

“There’s a white polo shirt that the governor tends to wear when he’s been doing his daily press briefings,” Louise Mirrer, president and chief executive of the New-York Historical Society, said in May, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was doing daily briefings. “We’d like to have that, and we will ask him for that.” (As of publication time, it remains on the wish list).

The New-York Historical Society is also seeking objects that illustrate the personal toll of the pandemic — some of which would be difficult to collect now. “There are some more sensitive objects that we’ll ask for later, like artifacts from people who have lost friends and relatives,” Mirrer said.

The protests in June also marked a significant change, and a major collecting event for history museums. The New-York Historical Society, for instance, has collected a mural depicting George Floyd by the artists Matt Adamson and Joaquin G that covered a boarded-up shoe store in Soho. They’ve also collected protest signs and posters.

Some objects exist at a kind overlap between the protests and the pandemic, records that tell two narratives at once. “At the Black Lives Matter protests, many people are carrying signs that reference the fact that Covid-19 is impacting communities of color disproportionately, and that this is all part of this bigger story about systemic racism in the U.S.,” Lord said.

Some of the objects with which we’ve become familiar throughout the pandemic have undergone changes or will have renewed meaning during reopenings. “Now there are also masks for kids who are going back to school, these Crayola masks that are one for every day, then you put them in a sealable package and wash them,” Braden said.

There is something both poignant and hopeful in these acts of documentation and collection, in trying to look back at our current crisis through the imagined lens of history. In collecting present objects as artifacts of the future, we’re imagining that future as a kind of afterward — a time and place where this is no longer ongoing, and we can look back.



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