Published April 20th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Silent schools and empty playgrounds.
Red lights and then green lights – at deserted intersections.
If daily life today seems surreal, unprecedented, like something in a disaster movie – in other words, historic – historians are right there with you.
Staffers at the Johnson County Museum have launched an initiative to gather detailed descriptions of daily life to document the age of coronavirus.
Entitled “Collecting COVID-19,” the open call is soliciting written summaries of the sudden change in everyday Johnson County routine.
“People don’t see this as history right now,” said Anne Jones, the museum’s collections curator. “They are just thinking about getting through the day…But we wanted to get a jump start on this, as the event progresses.”
Those who click on the “Collecting COVID-19” link will find a template that prompts them to detail their new normal. That includes what they might appreciate about the shelter-in-place and social distancing directives, what disruptions have proved challenging, and whether they or any friends or relatives have experienced the illness.
Jones and her colleagues specifically want to hear from Johnson County residents. “This is a regional initiative as we look for those stories and objects that connect the county to the Kansas City area,” she said.
That having been said, Jones is seeking as many perspectives as possible.
Replies will be routed to the museum’s curatorial staff members, who will respond, ask permission for the submission to be permanently archived, and then perhaps follow up for other details.
Once collected and curated, the responses could appear in a virtual museum exhibit, a digital presentation positioned inside the now-closed museum when it reopens, or both.
But for now, Jones is interested in compiling the county’s collective experience. That includes how the sudden spring transition from classroom to laptop computer is affecting seniors in high school.
“They will be missing all the senior traditions – the prom, the senior skip day, the graduation ceremony,” Jones said.
Responses also can include the sentiments of coronavirus skeptics.
“I don’t want to hear from just one side of this,” she said. “I want to hear from people who thought it was overblown.”
The local initiative has been launched as institutions across the country seek to document the moment, some of them using social media platforms.
The Museum of the City of New York has established a hashtag campaign, #CovidStoriesNYC, inviting residents to share photographs – “taken from an appropriately socially-distanced perspective” – that document the pandemic.
Another New York museum, The International Center of Photography, has organized a similar initiative, #ICPConcerned.
And — to suggest the scale of the present emergency — the Johnson County Museum’s digital template invites respondents to compare the current pandemic to past historic events, ranging from the 2008 recession to the Great Depression, along with World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
“When we talk about Johnson County’s development and history, we don’t talk about it in a vacuum,” Jones said.
Previous epochal events often have had dramatic effects on the county.
“One example was during World War II, when the federal government took over the small town of Prairie Center and built the Sunflower ammunition plant,” Jones said.
Prairie Center, located in northwest Johnson County, dated to the 1870s. The 9,000-acre ammunition facility built there, near De Soto, in the early 1940s proved a factor in the county’s transition from a largely agricultural region to one that could accommodate manufacturing.
“We are interested in what will be the permanent changes of the coronavirus, how it could change life in 18 months to two years from now,” Jones said.
The stories submitted to the Johnson County Museum will join other holdings, such as photographs and artifacts generated during past local medical emergencies, today preserved in other Kansas City area archives and museums.
Some possess a resonance they arguably didn’t have just two months ago.
Among the artifacts held at the National Archives at Kansas City is an October 1918 letter written by a then-recent graduate of what is now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
The document, typed by a volunteer nurse named Lutiant Van Wert while employed at the Interior Department in Washington, documented what she witnessed at various camps where soldiers were dying during the influenza epidemic.
“When I was in the Officer’s barracks, four of the officers of whom I had charge, died,” Van Wert wrote to a former classmate back in Lawrence.
“Two of them were married and called for their wife nearly all the time. It was sure pitiful to see them die. I was right in the wards alone with them each time, and Oh! The first one that died sure unnerved me – I had to go to the nurses’ quarters and cry it out.”
The letter, written just more than 100 years ago, feels eerily contemporary. She and her colleagues, Van Wert wrote, “worked from seven in the morning until eleven at night, with only a short time for luncheon and dinner.”
The letter’s official archives home is Record Group 75, which includes documents generated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2009 – likely in context of that year’s H1N1 virus – archivists selected materials from several regional National Archives branches to assemble a digital exhibit detailing the 1918 flu epidemic.
They included Van Wert’s letter.
Given the author’s unusual first name, the letter is easily retrievable online. A network news reporter recently read aloud from it while reporting on the hospital personnel in New York City struggling to help patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
“The writer is honest and relays her experiences to a friend, which allows us to better understand the context of what was happening then as we compare 1918 to today,” said Kimberlee Ried, a public affairs specialist at the National Archives at Kansas City.
Archival professionals across the Kansas City area are recognizing the current historical event.
Caitlin Eckard, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, has been preserving the institutional messages distributed regarding the coronavirus.
She also has noted how news reports detailing the pandemic are being routed through the country’s still-evolving digital infrastructure.
“We aren’t really collecting physical newspapers,” Eckard said. “Rather, we are collecting digitally — downloading stories to add to the archives. Digital collecting seems to be where archives will be headed, and we are trying to stay ahead of that.”
In a day when almost everyone carries a smartphone, personal pandemic records can include digital photographs.
Anyone inclined to take and submit pandemic-related photographs should remember to attach as much information to the images as possible, said Laurie Austin, audiovisual archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.
One frustrating aspect of her job, Austin said, is cataloging photos taken many decades ago – depicting events that somebody once thought worth documenting – but with little data attached. Sometimes she encounters images whose captions, she said, might as well read “unidentified person in an unidentified place, holding a cup of something, at an unidentified time.
“Be sure you have a good way of numbering your photos, identifying people when you can – places, dates, what you’re seeing, why it’s important,” Austin said.
Archival images held at the University of Kansas Medical Center, meanwhile, represent how the professional medical community at 39th Street and Rainbow Boulevard responded to public health emergencies, said Alex Welborn, head archivist at the medical center’s Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine.
Today the archive holds records noting the medical center’s response to events such as the 1981 Hyatt skywalks collapse and the 1951 Kansas City flood. The flood prompted many area residents to line up for typhus inoculations offered at the medical center – one archived photo documents how long the lines were.
“I think things like oral history interviews or personal journals would be useful to future researchers,” Welborn said regarding the current pandemic.
In that spirit, the Johnson County Museum “Collecting COVID-19” initiative can accommodate emails – either received or generated by respondents – that describe the pandemic.
The coronavirus responses the museum receives will take their place among its own holdings generated during past medical emergencies or exercises.
They include a photograph taken during a 1983 disaster simulation at what is now AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, the former Shawnee Mission Medical Center.
Johnson County public health officials can boast of a long record of preparedness. In 2004 – after the 2001 series of anthrax attacks through the postal system, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) experienced in China and internationally two years later – many gathered at the same hospital to host a seminar on local bioterrorism preparedness.
Also in the Johnson County Museum collection is a quarantine sign once displayed at Reece Hospital, built in 1934 in Gardner, Kansas, and considered Johnson County’s first hospital.
The sign warned of a patient suffering from scarlet fever, which often targeted children and caused devastating epidemics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers scarlet fever a “mild infection,” treatable with antibiotics.
Today, the launch of a COVID-19 collecting initiative may suggest the implied hope that one day COVID-19, just like scarlet fever, will be controlled – that it will be history. The hope is that the perspectives now being gathered by the Johnson County Museum one day will be pondered by all those fortunate enough to have come out healthy on the other end.
Until then, the view from your own home is what history looks like.
“People don’t think something affects them until unless it hits them at the front door,” Jones said.
“This is hitting them at their front door.”
The Johnson County Museum, located at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center at 8778 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, is currently closed. To visit the museum’s new Virtual Museum, go to www.jcprd.com/virtualmuseum.
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a board member of the Jackson County Historical Society.