Curating COVID: artifacts sought for posterity

Last March, Roland Sawatzky gazed out his office window at the Manitoba Museum. The province had just announced its first COVID-19 cases and, already, Sawatzky recognized history unfolding.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/03/2021 (745 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last March, Roland Sawatzky gazed out his office window at the Manitoba Museum. The province had just announced its first COVID-19 cases and, already, Sawatzky recognized history unfolding.

“I saw the streets empty for the first time in my life — totally empty,” he recalls. “And I was sitting there at my desk, and I knew I would be going home soon, too. And I thought, ‘how are we going to remember this in a physical way?’”

Sawatzky is the curator of history at the Main Street institution, so it stands to reason that he would think, well, like a curator of history. Fresh in his mind, too, was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; when Sawatzky went looking for artifacts in the Manitoba Museum’s collection to commemorate the 100-year anniversary in 2018, he discovered there were none. “It killed between 50 and 100 million people in the world, and we had not a single artifact,” he says.

That’s why the Manitoba Museum has put out a call for offers of artifacts from the COVID-19 pandemic from the public, so that history can be preserved for future generations. Sawatzky has been impressed with what has been submitted so far.

“It was creative, it was varied, it was meaningful,” he says. “It wasn’t just PPE — which we want, too, but it was personal stuff.”

One such item is a backgammon scoresheet, jotted down in pen on a scrap piece of paper. Mom vs. Dad, with Dad winning 85 to 83.

“This was the first item that was offered to us, and I loved it, because it speaks to keeping busy during a lockdown and how do you do that? They decided to play 168 games of backgammon together.”

Another personal offering is a Social Distance Club sweatshirt, given to the museum by a new mom. She and a few friends had ordered them, and wearing it in isolation was a way for her to feel connected at a time of deep disconnect. There’s also a heart-shaped ‘Spread Kindness-19’ sign, donated by Michelle Samson, a co-ordinator at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site. The hand-painted sign offered a boost of morale where and when it was so needed.

Other bits of ephemera include distanced family photos, shot through windows or on doorsteps. Neon signs expressing gratitude and support for frontline workers. A collection of COVID-themed cartoons drawn by a little girl with a New Yorker sensibility. One depicted a cat wearing a necktie. The caption: Working from home? Meet your new boss. “And that’s exactly my house,” Sawatzky says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is far in the rearview, we will be richer for having saved some of the tangible evidence.

“I’m thinking of the curator who’s going to be here in 100 years and what that person is going to do, and so this is for them as well,” Sawatzky says. “When I do acquisitions and collections for the museum, I’m always thinking of future generations, future curators, future museum workers, future visitors, and what’s going to speak to them from this time.

“We don’t know what museums are going to be like, or how culture is going to be exhibited, or what’s going to be engaging for people. But if we don’t have this stuff, it becomes much less real.”

The Manitoba Museum is still accepting pandemic-related offerings. Those interested can email

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 7:21 PM CST: Changes Social Distancing Club to Social Distance Club.

Updated on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 8:07 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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