Ona table in a back room of the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a canvas bag emblazoned with an image of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as Wonder Woman. Beneath his armored arms are the words “Go hard and go early” – the early 2020 slogan to curb the spread of Covid-19 that the country quickly adopted.
Next to the bag is a set of three tennis balls, with crudely scribbled phrases in pen: “we don’t consent”; “hands off our children”; “Pfizer kills”. Anti-vaccine protesters threw these balls at journalists during a demonstration in late 2021, marking the start of growing discontent among some groups over vaccines and the way the pandemic was being handled.
Side by side, the objects represent the narrative arc of the pandemic in New Zealand over two years: from an initial social cohesion not seen since the war, with a population ready to line up behind the leader of their nation, to the unraveling of unity and a shift towards distrust of the media and institutions.
The objects are part of Te Papa’s expanding Covid-19 History Collection, which aims to capture New Zealand’s experience of the pandemic from the prosaic to the poetic and the political.
There’s fan art focused on the country’s director of general health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, her face sporting a tea towel; there are “viruses” devised 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 objects tell a single story, others arouse a wide debate, many objects call and respond to each other. For Te Papa, each object – whether collected, purchased or gifted – is another color in the palette used to paint the portrait of a country in the grip of a pandemic, while living within it.
When the nation went into lockdown in March 2020, so did institutions such as Te Papa. All acquisitions were abruptly halted, but the museum knew it had to start building a record of the event.
“[We] We knew we were in strange and unprecedented times, and this was a historic event,” says Claire Regnault, Senior Curator.
The team decided on the themes they wanted to document, including life in lockdown, government response, spontaneous community messaging on city streets, Maori perspectives and ethnic minority experiences. The themes expanded as the pandemic evolved to include vaccine rollout and anti-vaccine sentiment.
“What became evident was the amount of creativity that was happening during the lockdown in response to both the lockdown and concerns about the virus,” says Regnault.
Regnault points to Dixey’s beautiful and intricate textile sculptures of viruses – some beaded, others made with beads, nails or wire. “It 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 seek to show an evolution in style – face masks and personal protective equipment have quickly become canvases onto which people can project their cultural identity or politics.
“We try to get multiple voices and objects that have multiple points of view,” says Regnault.
For some New Zealanders, the pandemic began long before it reached New Zealand shores. Chinese New Zealanders had, for months, been in contact with family and friends in China who were already sick or dying from the virus.
These experiences, which should have warranted empathy, were instead drowned out by racist reactions.
“What was evident in our communities was how the virus was racialised,” says Grace Gassin, curator of Asian stories from New Zealand at Te Papa, who ensures the collection captures these perspectives.
“Viruses don’t have ethnicity, but there have been a lot of conversations coming from the United States with Trump talking about the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘kung flu’… New Zealand is not an isolated place, we are connected to the world, so those the messages filtered too.
The experiences of Asian New Zealanders in the collection are not limited to responses to racism. But two of the most striking items are a T-shirt by Chinese New Zealand artist Cat Xuechen Xiao, originally from Wuhan, emblazoned with the inscription “I’m from Wuhan – this city is not a virus, I don’t am not a virus”. and a T-shirt made by writer Helene Wong with the text “I’m not from Wuhan, Drop the Pitchfork”.
Keep the memory alive
Art historian and head of museums and cultural heritage at the University of Auckland, Linda Tyler, says museums like Te Papa are moving away from a proprietary and colonial attitude towards collecting towards an attitude more collective and nuanced.
“These physical objects that represent part of a time and a culture hold memories, and institutions hold our collective memory,” she says.
“We cannot all be responsible for the passage [these memories] to future generations, so if an institution can do that, it’s very important for all of us to know who we are and to be able to reflect on that in a meaningful way in the future.
Including the public in forming a collection also gives people a sense of ownership over their story, she says.
“People are much more drawn to the stories of ordinary people like them, rather than contemplating the riches of kings and queens.”
The Covid-19 collection is a living thing – as the world evolves with the pandemic, so does the exhibition.
Building a collection, while still in the middle of an event, challenges a curator to anticipate what future generations will want to know about a historical moment, while trying to maintain a level of sensitivity as people are still grappling with the crisis. It also allows collectors to collect items and ephemera in the moment.
“We collect what we can now – the things that we think are interesting or important – but we know that in 10, 30 or 80 years from now people will come to us and say, ‘I got this from my grandmother from the Covid pandemic, “so we are working with a long-term vision,” says Regnault.
Curators often examine material from past events to find out what gaps need to be filled in the contemporary collection and to find out what is interesting to look back on.
“But sometimes,” Regnault says, “it’s just what you can get your hands on.”