A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Canadians may wish to forget the year 2020 ever happened, but across the country, museums and archives are working furiously to ensure a full record of the COVID-19 pandemic is in place.

“If it happens 50 years from now, again, we want to be able to have information to give the perspective of the challenges,” said Sylvain Belanger, a director general at Library and Archives Canada.

But figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges.

One is the ephemeral nature of where so much of people’s experiences are taking place: the internet. Social media posts come and go, news headlines change hourly, and new sources of information and disinformation appear or disappear, Belanger said.

At Library and Archives Canada, a team of six people hoover up as much of the official record as possible. The amount of data they’ve currently collected is the equivalent to the data a person would use up if they streamed more than 2,000 movies on Netflix.

At the Canadian Museum of History, and similar institutions, the work is broader.

Capturing the language of the pandemic is one part: words like “social distancing,” the lockdown cocktail known as the “quarantini” and the “you’re on mute” uttered in nearly every single video conference call.

Saving photos and videos is another element, whether it is Canadian musicians streaming impromptu concerts from their living rooms, teachers wearing masks in the classroom, soldiers entering long-term care homes or portraits of what isolation looks like in the Northwest Territories.

Then there are the physical artifacts: homemade masks, crafts made from toilet paper rolls, colourful rocks painted by children to be strewn along paths, even the little sticky signs on sidewalks asking people to keep their distance.

What among those will become as iconic to the pandemic as the photo of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square at the end of the Second World War remains to be seen, said Dean Oliver, the museum’s director of research.

Knowing what to collect and how much of it evolves over time, Oliver said.

“There isn’t a checklist that says here’s the magic number,” he said.

Documenting the pandemic is difficult because Canadians are still living through it, said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, which among other things runs “The Memory Project” to record the stories of war veterans.

“It’ll take awhile for people to come out the other end, much like post-traumatic stress disorder, where, when it’s too immediate, you can’t talk about it at all,” he said.

But he said that what people will want to know decades from now is what they ask veterans today: how did you feel? What was it like?

Oliver suggests Canadians who want to make a record document those feelings.

“Many of the other aspects of your experience — where you moved, what you bought, your tax return, your census record — the future historian or your descendant will be able to get at in an impersonal way,” he said.

“But they will not be able to see you and feel you and understand how you saw and felt unless you tell them.”

One emerging issue is figuring out how to reflect the experiences of those whose lives have been disproportionately impacted, including racialized communities and women.

“There are a lot of data sets, but the voice of women is missing in numeric data sets,” said Yoo Young Lee, the interim head of information technology at the University of Ottawa, who also works on digital initiatives for the school’s library.

“We need the stories.”

She and her colleagues have launched an archive specific to women’s experiences, but it is a slow process. One challenge is that a reliance on using what people post online means those who don’t have access or choose not to use social media are missed.

The other reality, said Michelle Gewurtz, supervisor of arts and culture at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, is that people tend to only post the lighthearted moments online.

Her region, just outside Toronto, is currently in the midst of second lockdown, due to a rise in cases.

There, multi-generational families are locked down in cramped quarters, and getting a sense of what that looks and feels like is difficult, she said.

It’s become clear, she and others said, that what initially began as a project to document COVID-19 in the year 2020 will stretch far beyond.

“This isn’t going away.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Best of 2020

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Flip City’s Elise Van Harmelen at the 2017 Langley Invitational at the Langley Events Centre. Flip City is one of 11 local sports groups getting COVID relief funding. (Langley Advance Times files)
Langley sports clubs get COVID relief funding

The province is giving cash to groups hit hard by shutdowns

The first tree – a Sitka spruce – in the second phase of Fort Langley’s Memory Grove was planted on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 21. (Kurt Alberts/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Second phase of Memory Grove planted at Fort Langley

The first trees started going into the ground on Thursday, Jan. 21

B.C. MInisterial Order 425 and the list of permitted exemptions to wearing face masks in retail businesses and other public spaces. (B.C. Government website)
LETTER: Langley newspaper criticized for doing story on maskless encounter

Local letter writer shares opinion on video of unmasked man in grocery store

Two schools in the Langley School District have reported COVID-19 exposures. (Joti Grewal/Langley Advance Times)
Two Langley schools added to COVID-19 exposure list

Public Health will only contact those who were exposed

Jessica Simpson speaking to Langley Township council as a delegate in 2019. (Township of Langley/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Health privacy breach claimed by controversial Langley woman

Jessica Simpson is suing Fraser Health over an alleged breach in her health info

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read