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Pandemic Objects

While we were pulling together our ‘Now Accepting Contactless’ exhibition over the summer, V&A South Kensington worked on their own project reflecting on the coronavirus outbreak. Brendan Cormier tells us all about chronicling everyday ‘objects’ suddenly charged with new urgency.

The first days of lockdown in the UK will be remembered as strange and surreal. The news cycle in hyperdrive, every day new instructions from the government and everyone everywhere trying to pivot as fast as possible to a constantly changing scenario. Particularly striking was how a handful of everyday banal objects were suddenly cast to the forefront of our consciousness, Covid-19 having mysteriously bequeathed them with new meaning. Door handles became a vector of disease, a hastily scribbled sign at the off-license carried new directions for how we were meant to pay, toilet roll became a treasured commodity.

It became evident that an entire history of the pandemic could be told through these objects, how their meaning and use were transforming in real-time. And so the idea behind our ‘Pandemic Object’ project at V&A South Kensington came to be.

People with signs and masks reading “I Can’t Breath” are seen during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago.
  • From 'Pandemic Objects: Photograph'. People with signs and masks reading “I Can’t Breath” are seen during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, Saturday, May 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

It’s a way of documenting and reflecting on various objects through a series of blog posts. Where possible, we called on the curatorial and historical knowledge amongst colleagues from across the museum. The crisis cast into stark relief the degree to which our daily life and interactions were mediated by things. In so doing, could they also reveal obscured truths about these things that we might normally take for granted? Were there deeper revelations about design that could be found?

From late April through the summer and now into autumn, more than fifty posts have gone up on the blog. They explore old technologies (sewing machines) and new (drones); the very tangible (toilet roll) and the digital (Animal Crossing); buildings (conventions centres) and public spaces (parks); the body (hair); and more abstract notions like dreams and touch. More importantly, it has been a way of tapping into the knowledge and expertise of dozens of colleagues, while being a way of immediately making public a form of research-in-progress.

Photo of a green exercise jotter.
  • From 'Pandemic Objects: Exams and Exercise Books'. Exercise Book, Reddaway Brothers, England, 1960s B.178-2013.

Curiously, the V&A has very few objects directly related to pandemics of the past (a collecting gap, which we are keen to avoid this time around). If you type ‘Spanish Flu’ into our collections database, zero results are found.

But once you start thinking about our current pandemic in terms of generic objects and the functions they perform, it becomes easy to see a whole world of fascinating parallels. The new bird’s eye vision that a drone allows, for instance, hearkens back to the hot air balloon mania that captivated audiences in the late 18th century. The clutching of one’s bottle of hand sanitiser is a superstition not far removed from the use of pomanders centuries ago. Viral TikTok dances are descendants of dance crazes like the Lambeth Walk from the 1920s.

A selection of potted plants all arranged together near a window in a flat.
  • From 'Pandemic Objects: Pot Plants'. House plants have been a saving grace for many.

Gradually, recurring threads have begun to emerge about the power of creativity, about resilience through access to tools, about the unequal distribution of goods. Slowly we will be synthesizing these observations, to tell a more complete story about the pandemic and the wider world of objects and design.

‘Pandemic Objects’ will continue to evolve as a project. It has started as a blog. It is expanding into a programme for collecting Covid-19-related objects and, with some luck, it will mature into some form of physical display, publication, and series of public talks at a later date. Watch this space.

Brendan Cormier is Senior Curator of Exhibitions and Special Projects at V&A South Kensington. Explore the ‘Pandemic Objects’ blog posts.