People often think of history as something you study to learn about the past, history museums places to visit to see great artifacts from years ago.
But Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St., is making sure the COVID-19 pandemic is being documented now. Even while it is closed during the pandemic, the museum is collecting photos and stories that represent local people’s experiences in this unique time.
When people walk into a history museum, said Lipo, they expect the exhibits to tell old stories. He sometimes asks kids who visit the museum what “history” is. A common response is, “Something that happened to grandpa.” But Lipo likes to tell kids, “What happened during your summer vacation is history too.”
In fact, history is being created in this very moment, and Lipo’s mission for the museum during the COVID-19 crisis is to collect relevant items now. Although sometimes history needs perspective, a stepping away to get distance and a different look, it’s important to document things as they happen too.
A trend in museums, said Lipo, is asking the question, “How are we documenting our own time?” without necessarily waiting for the “accent of history.” He likened it to an art museum that collects works from a current artist who’s perhaps not famous yet because the curator likes the paintings or sees something special in the art.
“Why wait to see what’s donated in 20 years?” said Lipo. “We want to collect things now so we have more raw material to use later.”
The “things” he’s talking about are the personal experiences, the photos and stories that show how local people are reacting to and dealing with the pandemic. And he and the museum are asking local people to submit their experiences to the museum. They’ve set up a Google form with prompts, asking questions about people’s experiences during the pandemic.
What brings you joy? What are you grieving? How has the pandemic changed the way you celebrate holidays or important dates? These are some of the prompts on the Google questionnaire, but residents can also go off script and email thoughts and photos to the museum.
Lipo talked about how it’s the photos of daily life that are significant. People doing puzzles to pass the time. Snapshots of virtual book club meetings. Inspirational sidewalk chalk messages, or teddy bears in windows for socially distanced scavenger hunts.
“This is an important moment in time,” said Lipo. “These stories are the things that people will be telling their kids and grandkids. It’s having a big impact on people.”
An integral part of this, said Lipo, is representing diverse viewpoints and perspectives in all areas, including race, age, and socioeconomic status, among many other things. Looking at how differences in the way people live affect their reaction to this current crisis is crucial.
“For example, living in an apartment might be different than living in a house in terms of someone’s experience right now,” said Lipo, just as whether a person is unemployed or working from home will significantly change her experiences and outlook on the situation.
“We want to represent all different perspectives,” said Lipo, “and the stories aren’t always going to be happy. You have to include experiences across the spectrum of good to bad.”
He mentioned the heroics of hospital workers, important stories to document. But there are people out there who aren’t being reached, who are dying and not getting the care they need for a variety of reasons.
“Life is messy,” said Lipo. “But all the stories are important. And we want to make sure there is broad coverage of the community’s history.”
For more information and a link to the form to submit your experiences to the museum, visit oprfmuseum.org/living-history-capturing-oprf-stories-during-2020-pandemic.