Behind the Scenes, Discover
What does a museum do to document a historic event like the coronavirus crisis? The Technisches Museum Wien mit Österreichischer Mediathek (Vienna Museum of Science and Technology with Austrian Media Library) shares insights into its current collecting practices.
At this point, everybody knows: The current exceptional situation surrounding the coronavirus crisis will go down in the history books. But who will write its history? And what will future generations learn about this historic moment? Museums play a major role in this, because in addition to offering exhibitions to the public, they also serve as the collective memory of our society. Martina Griesser-Stermscheg (MG), Head of the Collections Department, and Johannes Kapeller (JK), Deputy Head of the Österreichische Mediathek, share insights into the current collecting practices of the Technisches Museum Wien mit Österreichischer Mediathek. 
 
What is special right now about the collecting activities of museums in the context of the coronavirus crisis? 
 
MG: The fact that so many museums – ranging from small, non-profit museums to large national museums – are collecting at the same time and on the same current topic is unusual and remarkable, but then again, it’s also understandable, because no collection would be complete without including this historic event. 
 
JK: Right, to museums and archives, it’s just part of what we do, but we didn’t expect that many people would be a bit surprised about these collecting activities. Museums are thought of as places that offer the public exhibitions, displaying objects of “times long gone”. Of course, when you think about it, it only makes sense that we are collecting and archiving in the present for the audience of the future, but that idea is less present in people’s minds. The coronavirus crisis has created a certain awareness of it.
 
And what exactly is being preserved for the audience of the future? 
 
JK: The Österreichische Mediathek of the Technisches Museum Wien is the national audio-visual archive for Austria’s cultural and contemporary history. This means that it’s part of our job to record and archive media coverage on TV and radio, which has been very focused on the coronavirus crisis these days. In addition, we are also collecting private video recordings related to the coronavirus, like those shared on social media. In doing so, we would like to capture what moves our society by preserving viral and trending videos, while also documenting daily life in fields like technology, medicine, politics, music or literature. 
 
MG: The coronavirus crisis and its consequences affect almost all major collection areas of the Technisches Museum Wien, such as everyday life and society, medical technology, transportation and mobility or manufacturing technology. For example, our collection includes the infrared thermometers that were used at airports or the disposable masks that were handed out in supermarkets on the first day of the face mask rule as well as 3D prints of face shields that are being developed or tracking systems that record what people you have had close contact with. But we also collect oddities like a stationary bike desk that allows you to exercise while working from home. However, we not only preserve these and other objects for future generations, but also contextualise and exhibit them in the pop-up installation Coronavirus Impact: Mementos in 17 Stations. This installation addresses the impact of the crisis on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which have been incorporated into the museum’s mission statement. 
 
JK: But collecting is first and foremost about preserving; using the collected items in the foreseeable or distant future is a different matter. For example, I recently used the Vienna transport system to record the current subway announcements for our archive. Of course, safety announcements using key words like “flatten the curve” were not something we were familiar with before the coronavirus crisis, and they will disappear when the crisis is over. It shows us how transient many things are and how quickly they disappear from view. That’s what makes them worth preserving and archiving. 
 
MG: Exactly. What has long-term value and significance for future generations? That’s the central question when collecting. But in such an exceptional situation, it is particularly important to answer that question from different perspectives. That’s why the Technisches Museum Wien has designed the 10-Megabyte Museum to include a focus on the coronavirus, inviting the population to directly submit digital mementos related to the coronavirus pandemic.
 
What is the 10-Megabyte Museum all about?
 
MG: Over the past few years, our digital devices have become more present than ever and we are surrounded by tremendous amounts of data in our everyday life. This is now increasingly the case due to social distancing restrictions, but it’s by no means a new trend. That’s why we created the 10-Megabyte-Museum to devote attention to our digital heritage and build the first digital collection with the help of the population. Interested people are invited to ask themselves what digital message in a bottle they would like to send to the future if they had to limit themselves to 10 MB. The focus on genuinely digital objects is limited to the subject of the coronavirus; in terms of content, we also encourage people to reflect on how the use of technology has changed in this exceptional situation.
 
What kind of things have been submitted? 
 
MG: Photograph, videos, music and also some very personal things. You can also tell that people have more time to become creative. 
 
JK: That’s another thing we have observed in our collecting activities. Now that more of public life is happening online, we’ve been seeing a revival of home videos, with people documenting and reflecting on their household and everyday life in private videos.
 
Is the concept of collecting by involving the public something that only pays off in such exceptional situations? 
 
MG: Not at all. We constantly receive donation offers from private individuals and companies that generously would like to provide us with objects like technical devices, paintings or books. We also often launch very specific calls seeking very specific objects that we would like to add to our collection. Lately, we have even been receiving an unusually large number of donation offers. You can tell that many people are cleaning the clutter out of their homes and discover unexpected treasures in the process. Due to the extensive collecting activities related to the coronavirus crisis, the “regular” collecting activities are severely restricted, not least because objects cannot be viewed and handed over for the time being. 
 
JK: The situation is similar in the Österreichische Mediathek. There are also numerous donations in our holdings. However, we not just archive the physical objects, but also digitise their content. In this way, audio and video recordings on outdated storage media, such as shellac records or VHS cassettes, can be preserved in the long term and are more easily accessible for the interested public. 
 
What has changed for memory institutions like museums and archives due to the current situation? 

JK: Actually, little has changed in the way we function and work as a knowledge repository of our society, but we welcome the fact that increased attention has been given to this important aspect. We are committed not only to the audience of the present, but also to the audience of the future. 
 
MG: Definitely. Collecting and researching are central aspects of our tasks and our mission as a museum, but these activities are less evident to the public than the exhibitions and educational programmes. But anyone who has ever wondered in the midst of this crisis how this exceptional situation will be remembered in 20, 50 or 100 years will quickly find that museums and archives take on a central role and responsibility. With major campaigns such as the call for submissions to the 10-Megabyte Museum, we want to raise awareness that this is also a participatory and democratic process. With that in mind, we are excited to receive many diverse and perhaps also surprising submissions that will tell this story together with us!

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