Pfizer vials, Zoom costumes and plexiglass: Museum of the North builds pandemic collection

As fewer COVID-19 cases show up at Alaska hospitals, many are hoping to put the pandemic behind them.

But before too many people move on, the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North in Fairbanks wants to collect culturally-important objects that represent the state’s response to the pandemic.

a red piñata with eyes and a mouth made to look like the COVID virus
A COVID-19 piñata stares menacingly, waiting to be smashed by Carolina Tolladay Vidal’s customers. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

“I have to always be thinking, like, 20 years or 40 years from now, what are people going to want to know about this crazy experience that we’ve all just gone through?” said Angela Linn, a collections manager at the museum who came up with the idea of a pandemic collection.

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Linn is not curating an exhibit about the pandemic. But she wants to seize this moment while people are still living it.

“For future generations, you know, that’s what we have to think about for museums,” Linn said. “It’s not what stories speak to me right now. It’s: What are people in the future — what will they find interesting and compelling enough to do research or put together an exhibit on this stuff?”

Part of the challenge is figuring out what will be important later while the pandemic continues to unfold, Linn said.

Linn said she thought the Museum of the North should have some items about the pandemic in its permanent collection. As her idea came together earlier this spring, she reached out to public health officials, including Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, who gave her some ideas.

“It would have been awesome if I could have gotten the first box of the first vaccine that came into the state,” Linn said.

Linn connected with Lanien Livingston, the public information officer for Interior Alaska’s joint incident command.

At a mass vaccination clinic held at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Livingston was able to collect quite a few artifacts.

“A Moderna box, there was a Johnson and Johnson vial, a couple of Pfizer vials, stickers and some blank vaccination cards,” Livingston said.

Other people suggested that Linn look at the do-it-yourself response that Alaskans put together as the pandemic widened such as hand-sewn headbands, 3-D printed mask hooks and the different plexiglass barriers businesses came up with.

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Linn said she’s continuing to look for iconic and symbolic items.

“Different things that people were doing like, Zoom squares as Halloween costumes, or you know, some of these out-of-the-world things,” Linn said.

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