Covid-19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness

Museums are places where visitors encounter, explore, and engage with objects, ideas and topics that are new, familiar or challenging. And they are places where people can gather safely. In the face of the global Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, on March 12th of 2020, the day we were sent home to work remotely, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology (MMA) made the decision to continue with its mission— Working toward greater understandings of the fullness of human experiences in the Southwest and the world — and extend it. We decided that day to begin developing an online exhibition about the current pandemic, offering different ways to know and look at it, as viewed through the concepts of “sickness” and “wellness”. We developed plans to offer this information in partnership with many scholars, institutions, and individuals. Our goal is to educate, add perspectives, and open conversations. Thus, was conceived the online exhibition Covid-19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness.

Because of the extraordinary nature of these times, we decided we would go live on our platform almost immediately, releasing the exhibition online on March 18th, 2020, building the exhibition as we go (this exhibition is a living entity that continues to grow and change, and is as yet a work in progress). We invite visitors to keep coming back to see what we have added.

The MMA is a relatively small museum with limited resources, we lack anybody on staff with the specific skills or training to develop online content, nor have we access to particularly sophisticated software or platforms. However, as we at the museum were all sent to work from home, we dedicated ourselves to continue developing exhibitions and public content and programs that address the human experience and issues of historic and contemporary concern. We worked with the resources at hand to provide at-home access and develop online content. We selected Squarespace as a platform to design and build the exhibition, because it offered both a hosting platform and design software that allowed us to develop well-designed, clear and accessible content with limited staff. The production of the online exhibition was carried out on home laptop computers by the MMA curator of exhibitions and MMA graphic designer – a work/study graduate student in architecture at the University of New Mexico.

In order to consider the larger issues of “sickness” and “wellness”, we offer sections that approach these concepts both in the current moment in New Mexico as well as throughout time and geographic location around the world.  Additionally, we have a section for “your story”, presenting stories of people living through this pandemic in real-time. And lastly, we offer occasional synopses of current news related to the pandemic.

Currently there are four chapters in the “Sickness” section, and five in “Wellness,” authored by Maxwell Staff and outside scholars, experts and practitioners in various fields. In the “Sickness” section, we began with a chapter on “Scientific Modeling,” teaming with an independent curator to help us bring together the work of the local experts at the Santa Fe Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratory to offer visitors an opportunity to understand some of the basics about the current pandemic and the spread of viruses more generally. In this section there is also a two-part series about the history of epidemics on the Navajo Nation, written by a Diné journalist, and a walk through Athens, Greece during the current pandemic by a visual anthropologist. The afore mentioned chapter on colonization authored by MMA curators contains subchapters on epidemics in the Rio Grande Drainage region, a consideration of the practice and histories of the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the American Southwest and Mexico, and finally, a subchapter on the hidden and not-so-hidden correlations between colonization around the world and the spread of disease. Here the exhibition specifically examines the ways in which this history can be found, explicitly or implicitly, in museum, library and archive collections.

In the “Wellness” section, a similar broad array of approaches and topics are on offer. The initial chapter was created by an Anishninaabe author and educator and relates the story of the Native American practice of jingle dress dancing as part of personal and community well-being. This is particularly relevant, as jingle dress dancing was a phenomenon in Indian Country as Covid-19 began to spread across North America in early 2020. We then added chapters on the creation of Hopi pottery and its relation to wellness, authored by a Hopi potter in collaboration with a MMA curator; on the experience of obtaining food in Paris at the beginning of the pandemic by a French geographer; and on the practice of Curanderismo, the traditional healing practice that began in rural Mexico and spread to the Southwest United States and beyond, authored by a New Mexican scholar and historian, with collaboration from a MMA curator and a UNM specialist on the subject. The most recent chapter is a consideration of southern European holistic healing practices during this Covid-19 pandemic by a social anthropologist in Portugal.

Currently these two sections comprise the bulk of the exhibition. As we continue to grow the entire exhibition, we aim to grow the “Your Story” section the most. In these times when everyone around the world is challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic, we want to engage more people in conversation and offer a platform for visitors to express themselves in the spirit of realizing community. At the same time, we seek to archive their stories for the historical record.

We at the MMA know this project is ambitious and, as an ongoing project and process, currently imperfect. But, as we continue to grow and refine the online exhibition, we believe it is important to have embraced the moment of global crisis with courage, and to buoy our visitors by that action in the hopes of building a sustainable, strong community, locally, at our museum, and globally, online.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, a small museum with big ideas.