Screenshot from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Virtual Field Trips and Talks webpage as it existed on December 30, 2020.

Documenting the Smithsonian’s Pandemic Response

While teleworking for the last year, the Archives has been busy capturing web content that documents the Smithsonian’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, the Archives staff, like thousands of people in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area and beyond, left the office for “at least two weeks, maybe longer” to “slow the spread” of the coronavirus known as COVID-19. Fast forward one year and I am writing this blog post in my living room with a cat on my lap. We have still not returned to the office nor do we know yet when we will.

This hasn’t been a staycation though. While we cannot do anything that requires access to our physical collections, many of the Archives staff are still able to perform a portion, if not all, of their regular work remotely. We have also used this time to catch up with our routine work and to start projects that we’ve wanted to do but haven’t had time. Some staff have even had the opportunity to cross-train by assisting with the activities of other teams within the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. In particular, numerous staff, regardless of their regular duties, have been detailed to photograph identification and metadata creation and cleanup—tasks that are seemingly endless.

One of the Archives’ projects during this time is to ensure that we are documenting the Smithsonian’s response to the pandemic as part of its institutional history. The museums and Zoo closed to the public on March 2020. Some reopened in late summer and early fall, but all were closed again in November 2020. From reimagining in-person events to developing new educational resources for kids stuck at home, the Smithsonian has creatively adapted their approaches to engaging with its audiences and sharing its expertise.

While there will certainly be emails, planning documents, reports, and other records of the pandemic response maintained by staff, much can be seen through the Smithsonian’s web presence. We have been periodically reviewing the central Smithsonian website as well as the websites of each museum and major program to determine if there is any new content that clearly responds to the pandemic and pandemic-related issues. We then use a web crawler to capture that section of the website. This allows us to preserve a snapshot of the content as it existed in that moment of time, even after the section has been removed from the live web. Once the pandemic has effectively ended and we have entered the “new normal,” all of these captures will be combined into a single collection and identified as documenting the Smithsonian’s COVID-19 pandemic response, thereby allowing future researchers to more easily identify relevant content.

Some examples of activities we’ve documented include:

  • The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a summer staple on the National Mall since 1967, was transformed into a series of online conversations and performances throughout the summer and fall of 2020 (webpage captured on July 13, 2020).

Screenshot from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival website as it existed on July 13, 2020.

  • The first Smithsonian facilities to do so, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and the National Zoo reopened to the visitors on July 24, 2020, under new health and safety protocols including free timed tickets (Udvar-Hazy Center webpage and National Zoo webpage both captured on September 18, 2020).
  • The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center launched “Standing Together Against Xenophobia” in response to the rise in anti-Asian racism that accompanied the pandemic (webpage captured on June 1, 2020).
  • The Smithsonian Science Education Center developed a COVID-19 curriculum, available in 15 languages, centered upon protecting yourself and others from the virus (webpage captured on September 15, 2020).
  • The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden asserted that “art is everywhere, including home” and supported its statement with real-time conversations with artists and curators, virtual art and maker activities for kids, video tours, and other online events and resources (webpage captured December 28, 2020).

Screenshot from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden website as it existed on December 28, 2020

  • The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center introduced interactive virtual field trips and has periodically reopened its trails and docks to the public during times that are traditionally less crowded (webpage captured on December 30, 2020).

Screenshot from the National Museum of American History's

  • The National Museum of American History asked the public to share their personal 2020 stories in order to create a time capsule of a year marked by a pandemic, economic crisis, police violence, and protest (webpage captured on January 22, 2021).

Screenshot from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's

  • Similarly, the Anacostia Community Museum promoted Moments of Resilience, an online initiative to collect stories of communities supporting each other through difficult times (webpage captured on June 4, 2020).
  • And with everything else closed, the Chandra X-ray Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on behalf of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, assured researchers that the Observatory continues to operate as usual (webpage captured on June 4, 2020).

In the time since we captured the snapshots noted above, some of the content has already been removed from the live web or has been updated to include new information and resources. In many cases we’ve captured the same page multiple times during the pandemic to document how it has evolved. At the top of each of the web crawls, there is a banner that contains the date it was captured and hyperlinks to “All versions” of the archived page. By clicking this link, you can access a calendar that lists every instance that the Archives has crawled the webpage since the beginning of the pandemic. At the top of the calendar is a link to the live website.

These web crawls will only be one piece of the future history of the Smithsonian’s pandemic response, but, if not captured now, they may be lost forever.

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