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Motion Detector No. 16: Collecting Pandemics

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In its Motion Detector series (formerly The Showcase of Contemporary Issues), the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK) displays objects from its collection that bear connections with current events. The 16th Motion Detector display deals with the spread of COVID-19 and other historical pandemics. It explores the question of how pandemics can be collected in museums, and asks: Which social strategies for dealing with pandemics can we read in the objects and images in the collection? The display can be seen in the foyer of the MEK until the end of September 2020.

In recent months, all our lives have been radically altered by the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus and the previously unknown disease it causes, COVID-19. Much of daily life has come to a standstill. Both domestically and globally, economic disparities have become more apparent than ever. Authoritarian and populist governments and movements are seeking to use the pandemic to advance their own agendas. While here in Northern Europe, it is mainly our lifestyles that are threatened, many people in the Global South have little chance of protecting themselves against the disease, and also face the existential threat of poverty.

A look at historical predecessors

This crisis is completely new to us – to help us navigate through the fog, we look back to historical precedents: to the plague of the Middle Ages, which became inscribed in our collective memory as the “Black Death”; or the waves of cholera that left revolutionary 19th-century Europe trembling with fear; the “Spanish flu”, which towards the end of the First World War snatched the lives of more people than the military battles that preceded it; HIV/AIDS, so long a taboo, today underscores the global inequalities in access to medications (and thus, to quality of life and chances of survival).

Measures to stem the spread of these diseases have always been carried out in a whole range of fields: in politics, through laws on behaviour and hygiene in public spaces as well as restrictions on the mobility of people and commodities; in medicine through preventive treatments and therapies; in the religious and spiritual realm though amulets and prayers to protect against infection; and in the social sphere, through the stigmatisation and exclusion of certain groups, but also through resounding declarations of solidarity.

What might happen if we never return to the normal state of affairs? 

At the same time, pandemics also always lead to a fundamental interrogation of the structures of society: the hope for a new form of collective life and a more considerate relationship with our non-human environment is also evident in many of the submissions from right across Europe that the MEK received in response to the call-out #CollectingCorona. In these reflections, we can always also hear the anxious and hopeful question: “What might happen if we never return to the normal state of affairs?”