Connected \\ April 8, 2020
From Here to Ear finches. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
More recently, Kimsooja’s Archive of Mind invited you to engage in a moment of meditation while rolling a clay ball, our individual offerings accumulating into a portrait of communal energy and attention. Sometimes, artists’ work has resonated in unexpected ways. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, Nick Cave's Soundsuit invasion provided the perfect occasion for us all to dance and heal together.
Archive of Mind in action. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
As I have watched the COVID-19 pandemic grow, I have been fighting off an altogether more queasy form of artistic memory. You see, because of my work at PEM, I was invited to participate on a team at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, the first medical history museum in the United States, to develop a project about the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic. Through the military effort toward the end of the first world war, that city’s population had swelled to around 2 million people. Then, as now, public health impacts and political calculations were not always in easy alignment.
A decision in 1918 to proceed with a fundraising parade for the war effort despite the presence of the flu resulted in 200,000 people flooding into Philadelphia’s streets. The flu spread like wildfire and within six weeks more than 12,000 people had died, and over six months some 17,500 had passed away. That pandemic was caused by the then newly emergent H1N1 strain, which was one of the strains targeted by this year’s flu shots. In the fullness of time we will no doubt have vaccines available to us for COVID-19, but it will come too late for this particular outbreak.
© Blast Theory. Photo by Tivern Turnbull.
I was excited to work on the Mütter Museum project with an interdisciplinary team that included several museum staff, a historical curator, a historical epidemiologist and Blast Theory, a collective of artists renowned for creating interactive artworks that explore social and political questions. We created an exhibition entitled Spit Spreads Death, its title drawn from a public health proclamation emblazoned on posters that were installed throughout Philadelphia in 1918. The exhibition looked at the pandemic from many different historical angles but one central task was to connect the impact of this historical event to contemporary audiences.
To Prevent Influenza! Illustrated Current News, New Haven, Connecticut, 1918. U.S. National Library of Medicine. © The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Influenza precaution sign at Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1918. From the Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C. © The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
There will be plenty of time to see the full video in the Spit Spreads Death exhibition once we get through our current medical crisis as it will be on exhibit for the next five years.
Curator Trevor Smith representing Olga Pruss. © Blast Theory. Photo by Tivern Turnbull.
Among the many personal impacts on me were that I was compelled to get my first ever flu shot (at a pop-up stand after the parade). While the flu shot only covers the most likely strains of flu in each year, it does contribute to herd immunity. None of this, of course, protected people against COVID-19 in the massive crowds gathered at political rallies, on beaches in Florida or racetracks in London this spring. By that time, the ghosts of Philadelphia were too present in my head to ignore their whispered warnings.