One of the key points I keep making about history is that it is part of our infrastructure. Each community has a foundation of history, as does each state, and the nation as a whole.
The unique history of each community, the events, people, organizations, and even its geography, gives the place its special character. These are the features that affect how the community develops. They also draw people to the community.
The history of a nation is made up of the history of all the communities it contains, however, it also includes events, people, and organizations that have a widespread effect on the many communities within.
The COVID-19 pandemic, as we are living it, is now a part of the history of the United States as well as a part of the history of Earth. Our necessary social isolation the world over is drawing us together in this shared history.
While we don’t yet know how COVID-19 will play out in terms of deaths or massive societal changes brought about in response to the pandemic, we have quickly learned that certain services and personnel are essential to our survival at this time. Healthcare workers and hospitals are critical, though because they handle life and death matters, they are always considered essential.
Grocery store workers, custodians and other janitorial staff, garbage haulers, and anyone tasked with keeping utilities operational have been deemed essential. Note that those on this list are not typically paid very well and society doesn’t usually respect them as much as it does other professions. The pandemic is proving just how valuable these workers are to the proper functioning of our nation. They are a key part of our survival, not just now but always.
But, what are we to make of the services and personnel who are not considered essential to survival during the pandemic? The workers at museums and other “places of amusement” and the bar and restaurant staff all sent home early in the stay-at-home process? Because they are not needed for our survival, does that mean we don’t really need them at all?
Working in the history field whose organizations struggle in the best of times with getting enough money to operate, I have seen this argument played out over and over when it comes to funding. History museums are considered nonessential in comparison to other aspects of community infrastructure, therefore funders feel justified in not adequately supporting them.
Just because a service isn’t HOUSE-ON-FIRE! critical for survival doesn’t mean it adds no value to society. In fact, these services help communities to thrive. Because, honestly, who wants to hang out in a continuous mode of hard-scrabble survival? Ideally, we all would much prefer “thrive-al” mode, living our best, most interesting lives.
That’s what museums, arts and cultural events, and places of public amusement allow us to do, as do the school teachers and personnel who were also sent home during the pandemic.
I do not want any politician claiming after the worst of this is over that none of these sectors is worth supporting because we didn’t need them during the pandemic. Because we do.
As one wag put it on Twitter:
When it comes to history specifically, if our politicians had paid attention to historians explaining how the U.S. government botched its response to Spanish Influenza (which actually started in the United States) in 1918, we may be in a different spot right now in terms of how COVID-19 is spreading. We, quite literally, could have used history for our survival.
On that note, here are a few museum resources to help keep you occupied during this time of home isolation.
Coloring packets from the Smithsonian Institution