On a table in a back room of New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a canvas bag emblazoned with an image of prime minister Jacinda Ardern as Wonder Woman. Below her armoured arms are the words “Go hard & go early” – the early 2020 catchcry to curb the spread of Covid-19 that the country quickly adopted.
Next to the bag is a set of three tennis balls, with phrases roughly scrawled in pen: “we do not consent”; “hands off our children”; “Pfizer kills”. Anti vaccine-mandate protesters hurled these balls at journalists during a protest in late 2021, marking the beginning of an intensifying discontent among some groups over vaccines and the way the pandemic was being managed.
Side by side, the objects represent the narrative arc of the pandemic in New Zealand over two years: from an initial social cohesion not seen since wartime, with a population ready to fall in behind their nation’s leader, to the fraying of unity and an shift towards distrust in media and institutions.
The objects form part of Te Papa’s expanding Covid-19 history collection, which aims to capture New Zealand’s experience of the pandemic, from the prosaic to the poetic and the political.
There is fan art focused on the country’s director of general health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, his face emblazoned on tea towel; there are intricately made “viruses” by textile artist Jo Dixey; face masks with embroidered messages; anti-racism T-shirts and posters calling on the country to “stay home, save lives”.
Some items tell a single story, others spark a broad debate, many objects call and respond to one another. For Te Papa each object – be it scavenged, bought or gifted – is another colour in the palette used to paint a portrait of a country experiencing a pandemic, while still living in its midst.
When the nation locked down in March 2020, so too did institutions such as Te Papa. All acquisitions came to an abrupt halt, but the museum knew it needed to start building a record of the event.
“[We] knew we were in unprecedented, strange times, and it was a historic event,” says Claire Regnault, a senior curator.
The team decided on the themes it wanted to document, including life in lockdown, the government’s response, spontaneous community messaging in city streets, Māori perspectives and the experiences of ethnic minorities. The themes broadened as the pandemic evolved to include the vaccine rollout and the anti-vaccine sentiment.
“What became apparent was the amount of creativity that was happening during lockdown in response to both the lockdown and concerns about the virus,” Regnault says.
Regnault points to Dixey’s intricate and beautiful textile sculptures of viruses – some beaded, others made with pearls, nails or wire. “This was a great object because it helps us ‘see’ the virus, or materialise it and then be able to talk about it.”
Other items in the collection seek to show an evolution in style – face masks and personal protective equipment quickly became canvases for people to project their cultural identity or politics on to.
“We try to get multiple voices and objects that have multiple points of view,” Regnault says.
For some New Zealanders, the pandemic began long before it reached New Zealand’s shores. Chinese New Zealanders had, for months, been in touch with family and friends in China who were already sick or dying from the virus.
Those experiences, which ought to have warranted empathy, were instead often drowned out by racist backlash.
“Something that was obvious in our communities was the way the virus was racialised,” says Grace Gassin, Te Papa’s Asian New Zealand histories curator, who is ensuring the collection captures these perspectives.
“Viruses don’t have ethnicity, but there was a lot of conversation coming out of the US with Trump talking about the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘kung flu’ … New Zealand is not an isolated place, we are globally connected so those messages were filtering in too.”
Asian New Zealander experiences in the collection are not limited to responses to racism. But two of the most striking items are a T-shirt made by Chinese New Zealand artist Cat Xuechen Xiao, who is originally from Wuhan, emblazoned with “I am from Wuhan – this city is not a virus, I am not a virus”, and a T-shirt made by writer Helene Wong with the text “I’m not from Wuhan, Drop the Pitchfork”.
Keeping memory alive
Art historian and the convener of museums and cultural heritage at the University of Auckland, Linda Tyler, says museums like Te Papa are shifting away from a proprietorial and colonial attitude towards collecting to a more collective and nuanced one.
“These physical objects that represent part of a time and a culture hold memories, and institutions hold our collective memory,” she says.
“We can’t all hold responsibility for passing [these memories] on to future generations, so if an institution can do it, there is great value for all of us in knowing who we are and being able to reflect on that in a meaningful way in the future.”
Including the public in the formation of a collection also gives the population a sense of ownership over its narrative, she says.
“People are much more compelled by stories of common people like themselves, rather than gazing upon the riches of kings and queens.”
The Covid-19 collection is a living thing – as the world evolves with the pandemic, so too does the exhibit.
To build a collection, while still in the midst of an event, challenges a curator to anticipate what future generations will want to know of a historic moment, while trying to maintain a level of sensitivity as people still grapple with the crisis. It also allows collectors to gather objects and ephemera in the moment.
“We’re collecting what we can now – the things we think are interesting or important – but we know in 10, 30 or 80 years people will come to us and say: ‘I got this from my grandma from the Covid pandemic’, so we work with a long view,” Regnault says.
Curators often look at material from past events to inform what gaps need filling in contemporary collecting, and to know what is compelling to look back on.
“But sometimes,” Regnault says, “it is just what you can get your hands on.”