How a Japanese Museum Is Documenting Life During Covid-19

New exhibition features everyday objects that would have been unfamiliar before the pandemic

Commuters wearing masks in Tokyo
Commuters wearing face masks walk to work in Tokyo on April 7. Photo by Carl Court / Getty Images

Urahoro, Japan, has yet to record a confirmed case of Covid-19. But like many around the world, people in this small town have made an array of adjustments to reduce their risk of catching the novel coronavirus. Adults wear face masks in public, children have shifted to online schooling and locals take notice of visitors who could potentially introduce the disease into the community.

In February, a public museum based in the town’s library asked residents to contribute objects representative of their experiences during the pandemic. Now, reports Yuri Kageyama for the Associated Press, the Historical Museum of Urahoro has opened a small exhibition highlighting a selection of the hundreds of donations received.

Items on view include a pile of takeout menus, instructions for children shifting to remote learning and guides for creating homemade masks. A pamphlet from a local shrine announces the cancellation of summer festivals, while another document outlines directions for participating in a funeral.

“Our daily lives will be part of history,” curator Makoto Mochida tells Kyodo News. “We’d like to collect as many items as possible before they are thrown away.”

According to Kyodo News, Japanese museums’ efforts to collect artifacts related to the Covid-19 pandemic stem from a shortage of documentation dated to the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. More than 450,000 people across the country succumbed to this 20th-century outbreak, notes Japan Today.

Mochida tells the Associated Press that he focused on collecting objects like pamphlets and masks. Though letters and diaries form the core of many historical archives, their contemporary digital counterparts are easily lost in cyberspace, he adds.

How a Japanese Museum Is Documenting Life During Covid-19
The exhibition showcases face masks, takeout menus and guides for students shifting to remote learning. Historical Museum of Urahoro via Facebook

The masks featured in the Urahoro exhibition trace a story of evolution. At the beginning of the pandemic, Japanese officials encouraged residents to make their own facial coverings out of old shirts and other scrap material. Over time, the masks became more innovative, with some made out of sheer plastic, engineered to enable dining and drinking, or even programmed to translate different languages. Designs crafted out of bright fabric and decorated with artistic embroidery have also emerged as fashion statements.

Exhibition attendee Shoko Maede tells the Associated Press that she can picture future visitors to the museum remembering life during the pandemic.

“They may think, ‘Oh, so this was the way it was,’” she says. “Things do reveal how people think.”

Another exhibition that aims to record life amid the pandemic opened recently at the New-York Historical Society. Titled “Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” the outdoor gallery showcases 50 photographs and 14 audio interviews centered on life in New York City at the height of the outbreak.

Elsewhere, institutions such as Columbia University and the Chicago History Museum are collecting oral histories of people’s experiences. These testimonies “add depth and context to the accounts that will inevitably end up in history books,” wrote Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian magazine in April.

Several Smithsonian museums—including the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture—have launched pandemic-era collection projects. The Anacostia Community Museum, for instance, launched its Moments of Resilience online diary series in May.

Mochida, for his part, plans to open a larger exhibition in Urahoro next February.

“When we look back on this era in the future,” he tells Kyodo News, “those materials will help us objectively examine it.”