COVID-19 has had a dramatic, worldwide impact. A new Interface Focus issue examines the pandemic from a number of perspectives including epidemiology, research funding, public engagement, and the medical humanities.
We spoke to the issue organiser, Dr Roger Highfield, about the aims of the issue; the role of museums in providing a space for the pandemic to be processed and understood; and the historical legacy of COVID-19.
1. Please can you explain the aims of this issue?
For the first time, we are bringing together scientists doing COVID-19 research with curators who are collecting around their work to make sense of the greatest medical emergency for a generation. As the Science Director of the Science Museum Group, I was keen to take a step back from scientific studies of the COVID-19 pandemic to air broader issues since everyone has been affected in some way, and because the shockwaves sent out by the virus have spread to all aspects of life and culture. There are also many curatorial perspectives, whether from the viewpoint of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the impact on cancer research, or the role of science fiction.
2. This issue examines the COVID-19 pandemic through a multidisciplinary lens – including epidemiology, policymaking, funding, and medical humanities. How does taking such a broad perspective help enrich our understanding of the pandemic?
Because the pandemic touched so many people and so many aspects of our lives, it raised many broader issues: how science is done; how funding mechanisms evolved; the extent to which scientific advice sways governments; how modelling by epidemiologists fared in the pandemic; the extent to which we have learned the lessons of the 1918 influenza pandemic; and how the arguments about the efficacy of face coverings shed light on the relative importance of empiricism and mechanistic understanding. Among many other perspectives we examine how the hunt for antivirals at pandemic speed could be accelerated by blending machine learning and physics-based methods; the use of AI to inform public health strategies and the impact of the pandemic on sleep.
3. How do you think museums are positioned to inform the public about COVID-19 at the present and in the future?
Museum collections, events and scholarship reveal the lessons of the past, such as the historic debates over the benefits and risks of vaccination. Moreover, through collecting contemporary objects, along with staging exhibitions and events, museums can help illuminate how science can shape our future, and how we, in turn, can shape science. When it comes to the Science Museum, we held high profile events to engage with the public, involving leading figures such as Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President and Sarah Gilbert of the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford. I wrote more than 120,000 words about COVID-19 in blogs that aimed to share the latest expert knowledge with the public, and the Science Museum hosted the world’s first Global Vaccine Confidence Summit and an NHS vaccination centre, where thousands of people were inoculated, including the Health Secretary and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The museum group has a major COVID-19 collecting project under way and my colleagues provide all sorts of perspectives: Katie Dabin looks at the impact of COVID-19 on cancer research and care in the context of our new exhibition, Cancer Revolution, which opens in October in Manchester; Natasha McEnroe and Stewart Emmens describe the challenges faced by curators when trying to collect and preserve objects that convey the impacts of COVID-19 while in the grip of the pandemic; Katy Barrett and Geoff Belknap consider the history of image-making in medicine and Glyn Morgan discusses how, in these unprecedented times, science fiction can offer a ‘creative space’ to prompt new ways to think and learn.
The pandemic has also driven the evolution of museums, compelling them along with many other organisations to engage with audiences online and to go beyond traditional ‘material culture’, where stories are told through objects, to find new ways to inform audiences about the threat posed by this invisible enemy and the scientific response.
4. What do you think the historical legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be?
The legacy will be huge and important because pandemics always pose questions about how we should act in future, not least when the next pandemic comes along. My colleagues Natasha McEnroe and Stewart Emmens examine why the 1918 influenza pandemic left behind so little material culture, in contrast with polio and tuberculosis. Perhaps this reflects how people did not want to be reminded of the trauma and death, perhaps much of the equipment continued to be used, or perhaps it was thought highly infectious, and discarded. That won’t happen with COVID-19. In perhaps the largest effort of its kind, the Science Museum Group has a substantial COVID-19 project under way, and we are working on an exhibition about the extraordinary global effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, which will open simultaneously in the UK, India, and China in November 2022, then go on tour in all three countries.
Image credit: A vial of a Covid-19 vaccine. Science Museum Group Images