As we slog through the trenches of 2020, which is leaving one of the most cataclysmic wakes in contemporary memory, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that this is some amazing history we’re living through. With the coronavirus pandemic and the social transformation carried by the protests against racism, the coming years will look and feel different in many ways. But there’s one Atlanta institution that didn’t miss a beat in recording the significance to our greater metro—the Atlanta History Center (AHC). With the Corona Collective, they are asking Atlantans to help future generations and ourselves remember the details of this time by submitting their individual pieces of it.
Paul Crater, Vice President of Collections and Research Services at AHC, heads the effort. When the museum offices closed in mid-March, he and his team started working on a documentation process of COVID-19 in the Atlanta area. They had been getting calls from local media for 1918 Spanish flu pandemic information, but they didn’t have much beyond some clippings. With no budget, they had to get creative and were inspired by Washington University’s Documenting Ferguson project, where people could submit images and other content about community outrage, following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
Documentation flooding in
The Corona Collective page was up and running by early April, and the participation has exceeded expectations. “We had no idea what kind of response we’d get from the community,” Crater says. “We’ve had responses from 172 people and well over 400 digital images. We’re getting things that reflect the diverse ways people experience this.”
The collection effort is looking for photos, screenshots, emails, social posts, digital video, audio, photography and typed stories or personal reflections. It also includes three-dimensional items, which people can offer for what may be part of an eventual exhibit. Once it’s safe to do so, museum staff will make an appointment to collect those items. Meanwhile, participants can email a photograph and a description of the object they would like to submit.
Everyday life and collective loss
“One aspect that has been a great surprise to us is that teachers and students have been very open and generous in their willingness to share their class work that involved journaling and videoing how they’ve experienced this,” Crater says. Teachers and students from several metro area high schools gave permission for the Corona Collective to include their written and video journals. The range of emotions, Crater says, is bored to stressed out on the student front, as schools closed, graduation ceremonies were canceled and learning moved 100% online.
But the submissions reflect how all areas of life have been affected. The museum has also received selfie images of people voting, a livestream church service, public notice signs on use of the Beltline and a notification that on-site inmate visitations had been suspended by Gwinnett sheriff’s office.
Some of the material in the collection is heartbreaking: Atlantans documenting the loss of loved ones and the devastation of families and workplaces, as the death toll of the virus mounts. “Most people have not experienced the trauma of getting ill or having a loved one getting ill,” Crater notes, so submissions from those who have been through the worst of the pandemic are especially important.
As the epicenter of the pandemic drama, hospitals factor heavily in painting the picture of coronavirus in Atlanta, as elsewhere. When the pandemic has passed or diminished enough to relieve hospitals of their overload, the Corona Collective is looking to partner with one or several of them in an oral history project to provide current and future generations insight into what COVID-19 has been like at the medical front lines.
Protests add layer of experience
In the last month, as protests broke out in Atlanta and across the country in response to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, the Corona Collective began to incorporate protest signs into their documentary effort, an addition, Crater says, that was born of “spontaneity and immediate opportunity.” He explains: “The protest marches were occurring in the immediate vicinity of AHC, and we simply asked participants if they would contribute their signs, and many were glad to do so.”
AHC staff also photographed many of the protests. Their expanded effort to include developing aspects of life in Atlanta during the COVID-19 crisis is in conjunction with an initiative the AHC has with StoryCorps Atlanta to develop an aural component of the Corona Collective that may include protest stories as well.
A new way of preserving history
Technology has made documentation of the coronavirus experience possible in ways that weren’t available during other global crises. Those opportunities offer new questions too. “We’re receiving different types of documents than we’ve received before: Google docs, crowd-sourced with hundreds of links. How do we preserve those? We’ve never done that before, so it presents an interesting preservation challenge for us,” explains Crater. “This could be the springboard, and that could change the way we work here.”
Corona Collective is part of a larger effort, with at least 10 archival organizations in the state of Georgia involved. When it’s done (with no end in sight), the volume of material and experience recorded will be significant, enabling us to tell each other and those to come what it was really like.
“This is the first event in our lifetimes that affects everybody,” Crater says. “This project will allow us to provide other outlets with information about how Atlanta experienced pandemic.”
* All photos are courtesy of the Atlanta History Center
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