Masks, PPE, Health and Safety Signs, Fundraising- and Vaccine-Related Materials and Oral-History Interviews Added to National Museum of American History’s Collections

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History continues to document how communities and individuals across the U.S. have coped with the health and safety challenges of a global pandemic, protested hate crimes, raised funds for charity and reimagined work, culture and education. As the nation enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a death toll nearing 1 million, the museum has added numerous artifacts to its collections, responded to more than 500 donation offers and is conducting several oral history projects, including one focused on the Latina/o COVID-19 experience in New York City and another on educational equity and digital access in Washington, D.C.

The COVID-19 collections document scientific and medical events along with responses by business, cultural and political communities, and they span the museum’s curatorial units. Curators continue to consider artifacts offered through inquiry@si.edu.

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s Black Lives Matter masks (co-collected with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum) are among the myriad examples of personal protective equipment (PPE) that track the evolution of—and resistance to—mask use, starting with the pandemic’s frantic beginnings when N95 mask shortages resulted in “no-sew” and homemade masks. Other collected masks include one from the Navajo Nation, one worn by a 2020 poll worker in New York City, one worn to a wedding, another made for the hearing-impaired, several bearing company logos and one fashioned from a 2020 New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewe of Endymion baseball cap.

“As we look to the future with hope and courage, we know that many communities deal with crises and uncertainties as the cascading effects of the pandemic continue,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “As the nation’s flagship history museum, we remain honored to ensure that our collections and programs reflect the many ways COVID-19 has changed our lives.”

Medical and philanthropic objects collected include:

  • A 2020 University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health test kit, designed for an East Bay study to detect asymptomatic COVID-19 cases
  • Boxes from a Chinese church’s PPE donation to the Capitol Hill Baptist Church
  • A 3D-printed band to make a face mask strap more comfortable and a 3D-printed claw for opening doors from Washington, D.C.’s Mary’s Center, a community health provider, along with a physician’s personal cap and her inspirational statue of Venezuela’s Dr. Jose Gregorio Hernandez, who served the poor
  • A Philadelphia-area emergency room doctor’s cotton surgical cap decorated with cartoon characters, worn to put patients at ease when he was in full PPE

During March 2021, the museum announced its acquisition of materials related to the first vaccine, as delivered to Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse. Most recently, the museum added Lindsay’s brown leather clogs, their extensive wear demonstrating the long hours put in by health-care workers. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was awarded the Great Americans medal by the museum in 2021, donated his 3D model of the COVID-19 virus during a virtual ceremony. Several new artifacts relate to vaccination. Stickers proclaiming, “Vaccine of Hope” and “I got vaccinated!” were collected from a mass vaccination site at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Four red and white stickers with “I got vaccinated” and “#Get Vaccinated DC” were contributed by a patient of an area pharmacy, and an Oklahoma graphic artist donated buttons, posters and yard signs she created using an online fundraising platform to fund the effort.

The food and beverage industry, such as restaurants, cafeterias, bars, along with many other small businesses, were especially hard-hit by the pandemic and worked to pivot their business models. Examples of hand sanitizer made by distilleries and cosmetic companies to address shortages have been added to the collection, including some sold in fundraising efforts. A menu board, packaging, social-distancing floor stickers and other safety instructions and health advisories from a North Carolina brewery serve as examples of how businesses worked to continue serving customers

Philanthropy, mutual aid and social and political activism also rose during the pandemic. These efforts are reflected in collections that include a fundraising cookbook from the Dallas Priscilla Arts Club, which raised money to fund grants for Black women artists in the region, illuminating both philanthropy and food history. Raising awareness about the targeting and rising violence toward Asian Americans is represented in the collections through several artifacts, including a “Stop Asian Hate” graphics campaign developed by a Japanese American female skateboarder whose parents were incarcerated in a U.S. camp during World War II.

A ticket from the March 11, 2020, Oklahoma City Thunder game against the Utah Jazz that was cancelled after a player tested positive for coronavirus represents the impact of the pandemic on players, fans, sports teams and arenas and other entertainment venues. Soon after this game, the National Basketball Association suspended the season. That same day, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 outbreak had become a pandemic.

Through more than 600 digital images from 11 photographers and one college history class, the museum’s Photographic History Collections depict American life through the pandemic, from empty city streets to the grim reality of a New York City makeshift morgue. Some of these images can be seen in one of the recorded videos from the museum’s Pandemic Perspectives, a 2020–21series of panel discussions on collecting COVID-19, including topics on masks, vaccines and essential workers.

About the National Museum of American History

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open Friday through Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, and passes are not required. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, K–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on TwitterInstagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.