Covid-19 has both united and divided the world, changing the way we live practically overnight. Such a world-altering moment calls for careful collecting, and, a year on from the first day of Aotearoa's first lockdown, Curator Manuscripts Nina Finigan and Curator History Lucy Mackintosh reflect on how they curated Covid for Auckland Museum. 

At what stage in the Covid-19 news cycle did you two start talking about how you might collect this moment?

Pretty quickly! We started having conversations amongst ourselves within the first week. Part of our job as curators is to engage in contemporary collecting – collecting the here and now as it unfolds. History happens everyday and a really important part of our job is to look around us and think about how best to represent “now” in the future. This is important all the time but, like everyone, in March 2020 we became very aware that we were living through a moment of historic significance so it became even more prescient.
But it was also important for us to acknowledge that we were all living through this moment of uncertainty and change so while we started discussion early, we didn’t act immediately. We felt that it was necessary to give ourselves and the community a bit of time before we embarked on any collecting. Collecting sensitively and ethically is a big part of our process and this was no different. At the same time, we were aware of the fact that many of the things created (displays put in windows, for example) were quite ephemeral and thus at risk of being lost or thrown away if we waited too long. 


NO PATS! cat collar tag. 2020. Donated by Sarah Bishop. Collection of Auckland Museum. EPH-2020-6.

Badges made in a quarantine facility. Donated by Shelby Farmer. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.37.1-7.

What do you think fuelled people's impulse to make these things?

The collection is really diverse and wide-ranging, and the motivations for creating them were too! Motivations ranged from a desire to document this moment right through to simply being a way to pass the time and break up the mundanity of the days in lockdown - baking, crafting, zooming or journaling.  But we also collected things that people made and used to respond quickly to a rapidly evolving situation - handwritten shop signs outlining opening hours during the different alert levels, social distancing stickers and PPE distributed to Auckland hospitals. As this collection was primarily drawn from the first lockdown, it reflects the specificity of that time - the anxiety and uncertainty as well as the community spirit that emerged from this very strange and difficult situation we all found ourselves in. 

Our collection managers had to create some intricate containers for some of the objects.

A sense of collectivity and a desire to connect with others is a really strong thread that runs through this entire collection. What we experienced (and are still experiencing to varying degrees) is a moment of such profound disconnection. In a world that is so highly connected, it was alarming to suddenly be so separated from each other, both on a local and global scale. Suddenly family or friends overseas or even on the other side of town felt very far away. Yet over the course of the lockdown, many strengthened their connections with their families or flatmates, with neighbours and with their local environments. What we have seen come through so clearly with this collecting project is that very basic and fundamental human need to connect with one another. 

Sailboat made during lockdown. Donated by the Kitchen family. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.44.1.

How many objects did the Museum acquire? Can you describe the variety and what guided your decision-making? 

We ended up with 75 acquisitions, but many were made up of more individual items. Collecting at Auckland Museum is already guided by research and collection development policies, as well as considerations regarding storage and preservation. But because of the potential volume of material we were dealing with, we developed and implemented an additional Covid-19 Collecting Strategy to sit alongside our usual checks and balances to ensure we weren’t overwhelmed.

Nina: Because I work with documentary heritage collections, I was absolutely delighted that we were offered several journals and diaries. While we all very much lived in a digital environment over that time (Zoom I’m looking at you) people also seemed to be drawn back to the analogue. We received some wonderful examples ranging from a visual journal illustrating each day’s key numbers and messages to a food diary documenting one woman’s struggle to feed herself on a limited budget during self-isolation. These kinds of things offer such intimate glimpses into an individual's experience against the international Covid backdrop so they are really valuable documents. 

Lucy: There was a lot of craft that came in, which reflects the creativity that came out of this period for many people. There is also so much of the makers’ lives  - their work, their neighbourhoods, their emotions -  woven, often literally, into their artworks, which made them particularly personal and precious; things that could only have been produced at that moment in time and in each of their individual circumstances. 

Perhaps the best known craft work that came in was the felt hat made by the comedian Chris Parker, which he decorated with familiar icons of pandemic life in New Zealand, and documented on Instagram. 


THIS IS HOW I FELT, 2020. Donated by Chris Parker. Collection of Auckland Museum. 2020.19.1.

We were also given a set of beautiful hand-knitted puppets, or ‘Fence People’, which were placed on the donor’s front picket fence. The maker knitted one for each day of lockdown, to help mark the passing of time, and placed it on the fence. The puppets became a focal point for the neighbourhood, with children coming to look at the latest one and leaving suggestions for the next one in the letterbox, and other locals donating wool for the project.  So these objects really encapsulated the community spirit that was building in Auckland’s streets over that period. 

For others, making things was a very individual experience that helped them process and get through a difficult time. We have a cardboard light sculpture made by an artist with the only material he could bring home from work and designed in the shape of the microscopic coronavirus; a model house built using newspaper coverage of the virus and objects found while the maker was walking in the neighbourhood; a decorative mask made from a coconut shell because it reminded the maker of her home in the Pacific Islands; and we have a mask made from a camisole by an international university student who couldn’t find any masks in the early days of lockdown. 


Flax mask. Donated by Sian Thomas. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.57.1.

We also have some wonderful things which show how Auckland’s streetscape was transformed, such as photos of children drawing on the streets and of the Stand at Dawn Anzac services, and rainbow-coloured street stickers for social distancing designed especially for the K’ Rd area.  We were given a number of big banners, which had such a big visual impact on our city streets, bearing messages encouraging people to be kind to each other and even announcing ‘happy hour’ to the neighbours! 


Fence puppets. Donated by Bo Hensley. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.41.1-43.

Others reflect the difficulties that some communities had with people not following the rules, such as at Piha, where locals had to make a number of banners asking Aucklanders to stay away from the beach during lockdown.

Crochet dolls of Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. Donated by Kathy O’Keefe. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.49.1.

How did people react to your request to accession their items?

We were so overwhelmed by the support and interest we received. We think people felt really excited to be involved. That idea of collectivity comes up again here - the feeling of being a part of something and being a part of Auckland’s recorded history we hope is something that people feel proud about. So often history is seen as something that happens to other people and there’s this idea that ‘normal’ people, stories and experiences aren’t an important part of it. A project like this offered a great opportunity to dispel that idea.


Collection Manager (History) Sarndra Lees processing some of the Covid collection objects.

And when they brought them into the Museum? Are their Lockdown stories part of the collection?

Because this is such a large collection that came from many, many different people, we arranged a drop-off day so donors of three-dimensional objects (as opposed to documents and photographs) could bring their items in and get all of their paperwork signed off. It was such a special experience for us - while we and many others had been emailing with the donors for several months, we had never met face-to-face. 


Be-masked Nina Finigan and Lucy Mackintosh at the drop-off day for the Covid collection items.

It was actually quite an emotional day. We had been through this collective experience and were (somewhat) out the other side: we could meet in person, we could be in the same room, and we could reflect together about our experiences. So it was much more than an administrative experience, it was about connecting with individuals and communities.  It also meant that we were able to record the voices and experiences of those who created the objects, providing a particularly rich and nuanced context for this collection.

But getting the objects to the Museum is just one part of the project. Once they’re here, they’re assessed for any conservation needs, treated to destroy pests, catalogued, photographed and carefully packed and stored away to keep them safe for many years so that they can be used for future exhibitions or research.

Illustrated Journal "2020 The Year the World Changed." March 28 to April 11, 2020. Phil Hickin. MS-2020-5.

Do you know of how other institutions, here and internationally, have collected Covid?

All organisations took a slightly different approach, depending on their particular focus. As a regional museum our focus is always centered on the experience of Aucklanders. Te Papa has a national remit and then other institutions have narrower focuses, depending on their region or speciality. Within the New Zealand GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, art galleries and museums), it’s really important that organisations communicate to ensure that our collecting activities don’t overlap too much, to ensure we are collecting sustainably and responsibly. During the first lockdown we had a national GLAM Zoom call to discuss each organisation's approach to collecting Covid - the conversation ranged from the practicalities to the ethics of collecting during this time. Now that we’re one year on from the first lockdown, we’ve together written an article about some of the things we collected in institutions across New Zealand.


Pizza peel used to pass books to customers during alert level 3 at Time Out Bookstore. Donated by Jenna Todd. 2020.26.1.

We drew inspiration for our own approach from several international institutions that acted quite quickly in the early stages of the pandemic. The New York Historical Society published a Covid-collecting strategy and call for material on their website, and the London Museum had an already-existing contemporary collecting strategy that we found really helpful. We’ve recently published a piece about our collecting project in an international Museum journal edition that focused on Covid collecting around the world. Collaboration between organisations is global – we learn from each other and share ideas. 
Will the collection continue to grow as the pandemic rolls on?

As with all collecting activities it was important to put parameters around it otherwise we could go on collecting forever! While we received a wide range of items that reflected diverse and individual experiences, we knew that some voices were less likely to be represented in this collection, so we have also undertaken more targeted collecting: capturing the Māori experience and material culture of Covid-19, collecting items from businesses along one of Auckland’s iconic shopping streets, a collaborative project with a University of Auckland research group documenting the experiences of over-70-year-olds during lockdown, and collecting medical equipment to reflect the health response to the pandemic. 

The project is ongoing and items continue to be offered as the situation evolves. We may, for example, collect objects related to how the vaccine rolls out in Auckland. But while this first collecting project has come to an end, if 2020 taught us anything it was to expect the unexpected. 

Fence puppets. Donated by Bo Hensley. Collection of Auckland Museum 2020.41.1-43.