“The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s 'Pandemic Perspectives' webinar series helps people put in context what they're going through right now."
“The Smithsonian, like other museums around the country, closed the second week of March. We’ve continued working and moving forward with planned exhibits and innovating, at the same time, about how to deliver more offerings online. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s 'Pandemic Perspectives' webinar series, for example, has been an interesting way to explore the experience of past pandemics and help people put in context what they're going through right now. And it is a fun way to share with the public items in our collections that haven’t been on exhibit in decades. We started out with a very serious and important topic around scapegoating and treatment of minorities. We also have covered things that are more light-hearted, like toys and games and how people play when stuck at home. Our most recent session, “Looking Good on that Zoom Call,” focused on the history of makeup cosmetics and appearance. Through the live Q&A, we’ve even been able to have more of a dialogue with our audience than is the case during normal museum operations.
Here in our part of the National Museum of American History, the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation has been working to find ways to deliver our interactive Spark!Lab experience online. Spark!Lab is intentionally a very hands-on experience for young people to understand what it means to invent, what the experience of inventing is like at its simplest core. We've had a lot of success online with Instructables and Tinkercad, as a way to combine and manipulate shapes to create new inventions that meet our challenges.
A lot of museums around the country are very challenged right now by the financial impacts of the shutdown. The Smithsonian has the remarkable benefit of federal support, but an important amount of Smithsonian's income every year comes from the stores, from the cafés. We have four million visitors a year to the Museum of American History and they buy coffee, they buy bottled water. It really does add up. That revenue is all gone. So there are some financial challenges coming – the Smithsonian is actually well positioned relative to a lot of museums around the country – and I fear it's going to be devastating to the museum field for years to come.
The American History museum was open from late September through November, and then closed when the caseload spiked again. Peak days this fall were getting around 800, 850 people. In the pre-COVID era, a peak day would be over 10,000 people. That was a tiny fraction of what we're used to. We are hopeful that visitors all return once people are vaccinated and it's safe. It's a very interesting question whether and how people's behaviors will change because of the pandemic in terms of what they want out of a museum visit and how we can make our exhibitions and programming exciting and interesting to a really diverse set of audiences.
We don’t have clear clues for the next several years from the 1918 pandemic, in part because World War I was going on and then ending at the same time. So it muddies the historical data. But the general sense is that people bounced back to in-person and live events in a very serious way, and forgot about the pandemic. People really didn't think about it after it happened. World War I everyone remembered. There are annual remembrances. But the pandemic was basically forgotten. So while I don't hope that the Covid pandemic is quickly forgotten, there is good reason to anticipate that people will come back to in-person events stronger than before. It's amazing how few photos there are from 1918, but there are photos of 1918 of sporting events and other events with people wearing masks, so people did actually mask up in 1918.
What I've seen that's been kind of fascinating and fun this year has been the adaptability and the communal effort by inventors when it came to certain points of the crisis. When there was a massive ventilator shortage, and obviously the treatment protocol has shifted since then, but when it was a crisis, the number of inventors who came up with new ventilators, and who took 3D printers and started making shields and other gear, was phenomenal. And the USPTO was very effective at communicating to inventors that they were open for business and wanted new ideas, and in fact created a priority review for COVID-related inventions.
The other surprising development of 2020 that bodes well for the future is the seriousness with which institutions, including corporations and the scientific and engineering associations, are taking Black Lives Matter. There is greater recognition than ever before that the invention and innovation ecosystems, including supports for entrepreneurs, are not working for everyone. This is a country that has grown because of inventors and entrepreneurs. And the country is founded in the belief and the vision that we have open access to opportunity; it shouldn’t matter whether your parents were part of the elite or not. But it clearly has mattered whether you are white or not. And that needs to change. People are really engaging with that. At the Lemelson Center, we ran a webinar in November on black inventors and innovators. It was a mix of historians talking about what's missing from how we write the histories and policy-oriented people discussing what needs to change structurally to make it a more equitable system. So, I think that's really exciting. We are on a new path to new technologies.”
-- Arthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian National Museum of American History (January 2021).
Pandemic Perspectives series: https://americanhistory.si.edu/pandemic-perspectives