A highlight from Centers for Disease Control Museum


Of 2020, Luis Shah was thinking a lot about the pandemic. But not our pandemic. The influenza pandemic of 1918. Because Luis a curator of the CDC museum, and an early 2020, she was getting ready for an exhibit on how the 1918 pandemic shaped science and society. But then news started circulating at the CDC. News about a brand new virus. One called COVID-19. And that was when they had to change their plans. By early March 2020, it was really clear that we had to get on top of it. And it has been so different from anything that we have collected and documented in the past. The collection at the CDC museum, it's like a time capsule of every public health crisis that's happened in the last century. Take, for example, the polio exhibit. Wander over there, and you'll see a big hulking iron lung. Which is wonderful mayonnaise Barton Apia lived in for over 40 years. That, I think, is a crowd favorite. Then there's a glass jug filled with this noxious looking yellow water. And that water comes from the Bellevue Stratford hotel in Philadelphia. In 1976, bacteria in that hotel's HVAC system caused an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory illness at a convention of the American legion. The disease was dubbed legionnaires disease. The legionella branch had a big gallon jug of this killer water and we finally talked them out of it and we have it on display at the museum. And I say it's priceless, but it has no value at all. There's also exhibits on the obesity epidemic in the United States. And on the health impacts of secondhand smoking. And I do want to do a shout out for a smallpox eradication collection. We have probably the most stellar smallpox eradication collection anywhere. You can even try on a hazmat suit if that's the kind of thing that strikes your fancy. I mean, come on. But it's one thing to track down an old iron lung or charm your colleagues out of a murky jug of water years after the crisis has abated. It's something else entirely to collect artifacts from a pandemic, you're currently living through. We were doing a rapid response collecting kind of approach that we were trying to collect materials in real time. But rapid response collecting is a little bit like asking curators to peer into a crystal ball. You have to predict what objects people in the future will really connect with. Which ones will help them really understand what it was like to live through this crisis? So when reports about COVID-19 first started coming in, Luis sprang into action and cast a wide net. In early 2020, when a cruise ship called the diamond princess, had an outbreak on board, the museum approached first responders and quarantine passengers, and asked them, hey, do you have anything for us? In response, they got passenger correspondence, even a copy of a diary. And when CDC artists created the first medical illustration of the SARS CoV-2 virus, the museum nabbed one of the 3D models that they worked from. And of course, there was one object in particular that soon became a really big deal. One that reminded Luis a lot of 1918. There was the whole issue in 1918 about masking and there were mass shortages. So the Red Cross were doing like these events where it was women that joined together to make masks. Sounds familiar. Flash forward to the PPE shortages in the spring of 2020, and Americans are once again breaking out their sewing machines. And the museum made sure to collect some of those homemade masks. And as the CDC also rushed to certify the safety of new companies that wanted to manufacture N95 masks, the museum stashed away some of those that passed the CDC's muster. Luis says museum's first realized that they needed a rapid response collecting strategy after September 11th. Like people would put up a fly or have you seen my son or you have seen my mother, those kinds of things. And they were collecting the teddy bears at the sites. And it's a kind of collecting ephemera that if you don't collect it right at the moment, it might disappear. In 2014, the CDC museum put this new rapid response collecting into action with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And they knew they wanted to tell a story that was bigger than just the CDC's role. They wanted to represent all of the different perspectives in this collection that they were building, including artifacts from the community and religious leaders who stepped up to help fight the Ebola virus. We had aman and administer that actually shared copies of their Quran in the Bible that was mocked up with passages that documented why it was okay to have safe burial practices that were being recommended quarantine procedures. I will say in Ebola exhibit that was probably the most popular section of the entire exhibit. Included was a healer's bottle donated by the Sierra Leone indigenous traditional healers union. And it's wrapped with threads and cowry shells and was used to wash hands. The items showed that it wasn't enough for health officials just to promote safe practices. The messages also had to come from people who were trusted in their own communities. Rumors were an incredible issue in West Africa at the time, particularly early in the epidemic. Some people thought Ebola wasn't real. There was all sorts of things like, you know, this was purposeful, you know, people drinking bleach. That sounds sort of familiar, doesn't it? With the torrents of misinformation around COVID-19. The museum has had no trouble finding these kinds of artifacts to add to its collection. Things like anti vaccine posters. You might even say some of these artifacts come to them. Occasionally we'll have protesters in front of CDC and we have collected their materials. And they're sort of

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