The spring lockdown began a week earlier in Vienna. One by one museums closed their doors, with schools and stores quickly following suit.

Matti Bunzl, director of the Vienna Museum, realized early on that the history of his city was closely tied to this historic moment. He called on his fellow Viennese to send in objects, photos and films to document present-day COVID life for posterity. “Without this intervention, objects used during this period that would make the crisis comprehensible for future generations would have been lost,” Bunzl told DW. After all, no comparable records had been archived from any previous pandemic.

Scant evidence of daily life during plague, cholera

“We would have liked to have had analog evidence of the plague or cholera epidemics. These were irretrievably lost. But this isn’t the case with the objects that have accompanied us during COVID,” said Bunzl.

Easter eggs hanging from a branch depicting facial masks and social distancing regulations

These Easter eggs depicted a coronavirus theme, including physical distancing regulations

Since issuing an appeal on March 25 for “objects from daily life during the coronavirus pandemic,” more than 3,000 submissions have arrived at the Vienna Museum. A selection of 235 of them have been presented on the museum’s website. Among them are notices from the Vienna Police Department, hospital passes, homemade and commercially produced protective face masks and special contact-free door openers created via 3D printers. 

The Cologne City Museum also wants to record this exceptional situation for posterity. Residents have been asked to save everything that is new and different.

More than 40 historically relevant objects have been collected so far according to research associate Stefan Lewejohann, who is in charge of the COVID memorabilia. Wrapped toilet paper, for instance, reflects the fear of no longer being able to meet basic needs. A funeral photo showing two people at a grave underscores the hygiene regulations that have kept people from gathering together.

Mailboxes handmade by schoolchildren are also part of the archives. Unable to meet face-to-face, this was the medium through which they communicated with each other. Lewejohann sees it as an exceptional challenge to archive the present while the pandemic rages on.

‘Fundamental event in medical history’

Like the Vienna Museum, the Cologne City Museum also has minimal records of the plague or cholera epidemics of the Middle Ages. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been documented throughout Germany. City museums, medical history museums and historical museums are all emulating the Viennese example and starting to collect COVID memorabilia.

A kiosk with plastic wrap hanging in front of the cash register

Part of the Vienna collection: a photo of a kiosk with plastic wrap hanging in front of the cash register

Historians at the Haus der Geschichte Bonn (House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany) in Bonn also quickly realized that this pandemic was “a fundamental event in medical history that will shape Germany and the entire world in various aspects,” a spokesperson told DW.

The museum has developed three new collection themes: “COVID and Everyday Life,” “COVID and the Economy” and “COVID and Death.” They currently have about 600 objects in their collection. However, the House of History did not issue an appeal for submissions, but rather actively sourced the objects themselves.

Jester’s caps, footballs and holy water

Among the most important objects in their collection is the jester’s cap of the president of the Carnival Society from Gangelt, a small village in North Rhine-Westphalia, where it is believed that COVID-19 spread via a carnival meeting.

Picture of a map that looks like both a book and window, with plant to the side on a windowsill

Artwork by Olaf Osten is part of the coronavirus pandemic collection in Vienna

A soccer ball from the first Bundesliga “ghost match” between 1. FC Köln and Borussia Mönchengladbach is also considered to be of historical value, as is the holy water in packets that was distributed by churches to members of their congregations.

An exhibition, however, is not yet in the works. “Since the pandemic is unfortunately still ongoing, now is not the time to talk about an exhibition,” said the spokesperson.

After all, the crisis is far from over. And a museum needs a historical distance in order to interpret and classify the events. Furthermore, Germany is currently undergoing a second lockdown — the end of which is not yet in sight.

This article has been adapted from German by Brenda Haas.