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The hidden language of masks uncovered

  • BRUCE ASATO / MAY 15
                                Shopper Mo Petersen walked along the mall level of Ala Moana Center wearing her mask.

    BRUCE ASATO / MAY 15

    Shopper Mo Petersen walked along the mall level of Ala Moana Center wearing her mask.

Early in the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when production shortages of medical-grade N95 masks turned obtaining them into a hunt for the grail, DIY ingenuity kicked into gear.

Suddenly people found themselves improvising lesser-­grade face masks from fabric, scraps, bandannas, coffee filters, even sanitary pads. Newspapers published illustrated guides to making a mask. Both the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts issued new mask-making merit badges.

Multinational luxury goods labels diverted their assembly lines to the manufacture of personal protective equipment. Venerable Savile Row tailors got into the act, and so did a young surfer botanist in Hawaii, David Shepard, whose lacy line drawings of native flora transform a public health necessity into a paean to a biosphere that now feels more menacing than friendly.

Even before the face mask evolved into a defining emblem of the global battle against the virus, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had mobilized a task force to collect artifacts related to the pandemic — hazmat suits, masks, store-closing flyers — and capture history as it unfolds.

Reached at home, Alexandra Lord, a historian of medicine and chair of the museum’s Medicine and Science Division, talked about masks and their multiple meanings. (This interview has been edited.)

Question: How did this project get up and running so fast?

Answer: It was partly coincidence. We had been planning an exhibit titled “In Sickness and in Health” for 2021 — a study of two previous epidemics and a pandemic — and had been thinking a lot about the objects in our collections. Then, in December, we began monitoring reports on the virus. Sensing the impact and historical importance of this pandemic, we began focusing our collecting efforts on COVID-19.

Q: How did you decide what to collect?

A: Epidemics impact all parts of society. There is fallout in terms of businesses, schooling, the food services industry, culture. The military may play a role. Our five divisions came together quickly to create the task force, and as soon as we went to enhanced teleworking in March, our curators began getting in touch with different communities around the country.

Q: We tend to think of pandemics in monolithic terms, yet there would seem to be many intertwining narratives.

A: There are multiple kinds of stories. We started thinking about what kinds of objects we should be collecting and what stories we should be thinking about. Some communities are being impacted more than others: African American communities are being especially hard hit, and nursing homes.

But there are also restaurant workers, the homeless, workers in the food industry, especially meat processing plants. We have five curatorial divisions and 163 in staff in our curatorial departments. Even at that, it is a huge story for us to document.

Q: What are the challenges of collecting objects during lockdown?

A: Some of it is a matter of us thinking about how to obtain the things we need to tell this story. A ventilator is an iconic object of this pandemic, but we obviously don’t want to go out and say we want a ventilator, putting stress and strain on that supply chain. We are apprehensive about going to an emergency room unit and talking to folks who have other things to think about. Masks in some places are still in short supply.

So we’ve gone to the U.S. Public Health Service and asked them to hold certain kinds of objects. A lot of it is telling people to hold on to things they might otherwise throw away.

Q: A mask, for instance?

A: The mask is among the important objects we are collecting. One of the things we are thinking about is what kinds of masks should we collect. Different masks will tell different kinds of stories. There are masks for medical practitioners — the story of medical practitioners is fundamental to this. There are the various designs for homemade masks, including the one in (the New York Times). I personally used that design.

There are masks you might make for a child that uses a fabric illustrating Paw Patrol. That object in and of itself — the size, the pattern — will tell visitors of the future what people were doing and how this felt. It will give them insight into the role of parents trying to protect their young. A mask that is not that well made tells you about people struggling to do their best.

Q: Can masks be said to connect us to a larger medical history — germ theory, for instance — and epidemics and pandemics of the past?

A: We had already been doing this exhibition for 2021, so we began our planning long before the coronavirus pandemic occurred. That show begins with two previous epidemics — the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, an 1837 epidemic of smallpox on the Great Plains — and a cholera pandemic that hit California in the wake of the 19th-century gold rush.

When we were planning it, we wanted to give visitors an understanding that diseases have always spread as people migrated. These things have happened before, although not especially on this scale. Pandemics are nothing new.

Q: And have masks played a role in each?

A: Not all. Masks in the past did not have the same meaning they do today. Many previous epidemics and pandemics came about before germ theory. There were different ideas about what was causing disease. Some thought it was contagion. Some thought it was in the air. They thought it was bad air, and so they put a scented handkerchief in front of their faces.

Q: And what will all of this say to the future about our time?

A: What is significant is seeing how personalized the different masks are, and how many stories they may tell, from the group that made masks for people in the neighborhood to the mask that was improvised because you could not get elastic anymore.

Q: Are you building humanity into the armor?

A: The armor takes many forms. It’s not always about “Will this protect me?” There is a style element as well that is comforting. Our clothing used to be more patterned in the past than it is today, and by choosing a pretty pattern, you are humanizing this situation in which people can’t see your face.

Q: So, are you making the best out of something you’d rather not be wearing?

A: It demonstrates how adaptable people have become, how quickly we have taken this piece of armor and used it to make a fashion statement, posting pictures of ourselves in our masks on ­Instagram.

Q: It is a means for finding some control in a world that feels out of control?

A: Often with personal protective equipment, you can’t see the person behind the mask. The objects we particularly want are those where a practitioner or emergency medical worker has drawn something on an article of personal protective equipment.

Q: You mean a mask with a smiley face?

A: An important element of this is putting it into the context of the long human story. I look at how collecting ephemera will help people understand the way others experienced a pandemic. Even in periods of great sorrow we look for, and manage to find, moments of levity. That is just how we as humans operate.

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