Coronavirus Historical Exhibits

Coronavirus Historical Exhibits

From business vocabulary to social behavior, what the lessons Covid-19 will look like in museums.

To: Mr. Kent Whitworth
CEO and director
Minnesota Historical Society
345 W. Kellogg Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Dear director Whitworth,

I am writing you because life currently has come to a standstill and all discussion is centered on The Virus. Even the Historical Society is closed. But you of all people know that, in the sweep of history, these things tend to come and go, leaving important lessons for us all. These lessons often end up as exhibits in your institution. This is an early outline—a prequel, if you will—of some of those exhibits.

Personal effects. No exhibit of life before The Virus (BV) would be complete without many mounted examples of personal effects that have been completely abandoned in our after-virus age (AV). People will be amazed when they see (in virtual 3D) the fascination that BV people had for animal skins. Exhibit case after exhibit case could be filled with examples of this now totally abandoned fetish. They were called “belts.” Yes, we will tell our grandchildren that there was a time when most of us had a veritable collection of animal skins to be worn around our waist (what, no elastic?): alligator belts, snakeskin belts, sharkskin belts, cordovan belts, even woven-fabric belts.

These belts were attached by a now totally useless object called a “belt buckle.” Belt buckles were fashioned from a number of materials—steel, brass, precious metals—and embellished with turquoise. They had regional significance. Oddly, as one went west in the United States, these belt buckles tended to get larger. Texas buckles tended to be huge and emblazoned with miniature long-horned steer designs. One never saw a large belt buckle in the old cities of the East. If someone was caught without a compass, one could roughly navigate in a westerly direction by following the trail of belt buckles as they grew larger. This could be an interactive display.

Shirt buttons. Nothing was more radically changed by The Virus than the use of shirt buttons. BV, shirts were a veritable collection of buttons. Buttons would appear on collars, and they would—and this is hard to believe—go all the way down the front of a shirt. It was common in those days for what was called a “men’s dress shirt” to have anywhere from 12 to 14 buttons of various sizes. Women’s apparel would often feature buttons made of a dazzling array of materials: semi-precious and precious stones, metal, even buttons covered in matching fabric. Suddenly the world was awash in a vast oversupply of buttons, but what remains a mystery is whatever happened to all of them.

New business vocabulary. The advent of the internet gave us the overused prefix of “cyber,” as in cybercrime, cybertheft, and cyberwarfare. This was a slow evolution. In a very short time, The Virus dominated our business vocabulary with the terms Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Teams. These new words required not only learning their pronunciation, but hours of frustrating effort with totally non-intuitive devices called tablets, laptops, and desktops. Minnesota Historical Society exhibits could demonstrate the fact that if one grabbed a Surface tablet by the corner and threw it with the proper wrist snap, it would sail like a Frisbee.

Norms of social behavior. Pre-Virus people of all cultures engaged in the germ-transmission practice then known as handshaking. Archaeological ruins show handshaking practiced in ancient Greece as far back as the fifth century B.C. With the end of the BV era came the complete end, after 2,500 years of the practice, of handshaking. Museum displays will have a hard time showing the AV period because nothing really yet replaced it. Waving and saluting (including the single-finger salute, often used in traffic) are still practiced, however. In a virtual world, all introductions are done by machine anyway.

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BV, mask wearing was limited. In fact, wearing a mask was often illegal: when applying for a photo ID, when hanging out with your friends in white robes and pointy hats, or when walking into a bank. In the AV era, in some states it’s illegal to walk into a bank without a mask. And like a plague, the men with the masks, white robes, and pointy hats appear to still be with us (at least in Charlottesville).

That Charlottesville crack was meant to be a joke, which shows the other social norm that has been radically changed—our sense of humor. No one tells a coronavirus joke. There have been jokes made about people’s efforts to deal with The Virus (injecting Lysol), but no jokes about The Virus itself. Atomic bombs, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Titanic were all fodder for endless BV jokes. AV, not The Virus.

Heroes. There is tremendous uplift for all of us from the behavior of many of us. We have discovered whole groups of new heroes—not the home-run hitter (Kirby Puckett in Game 6) or even the seventh-game World Series winner (Jack Morris), but real heroes. Our new AV heroes are found in hospitals, grocery checkout lines, delivering the mail, packages and food, collecting garbage, stocking store shelves, and the many people that make civilized life possible. Health and fire first responders are serving without regard to personal risk for the benefit and safety of absolute strangers. Perhaps we can all take time to recognize the real heroes among us and thank them.

Vance K. Opperman
Thankful for our real heroes

Vance K. Opperman
is owner and CEO of MSP
Communications, which publishes
Twin Cities Business.

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