A few hours after the twin towers fell, Jan Ramirez recalled, a colleague’s ash-covered husband walked into her workplace at the New York Historical Society, stripped off his dust mask, and set it on her desk.

“Consider this your first artifact donation,” he said.

It would not be the last. In the weeks and months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Ramirez and other archivists and curators worked to locate and identify objects and documents — from bent steel beams to “missing” posters — that would help tell the story to future generations.

“The first order was triage, get the material to safe, secure locations, and start to figure out the questions you needed to ask,” said Ramirez, now chief curator of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

Today, archives and museums in the Philadelphia region and across the country have undertaken a new, in-the-moment search, seeking to preserve materials that document the coronavirus crisis even as the pandemic rages on.

Business-closure signs. Thank-you cards to doctors and nurses. Toilet paper. Test kits. Grocery lists. Handicrafts woven or carved to pass the time indoors. Home-school lesson plans. All can help tell the story.

Jan Ramirez and the first artifact she received on the day of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, an ash-covered face mask. She is now the chief curator of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.
National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Jan Ramirez and the first artifact she received on the day of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, an ash-covered face mask. She is now the chief curator of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

Because personal contact can be dangerous, some institutions have asked people to hold onto potentially interesting physical goods for the time being, and are focusing on mementos that can be safely shared, like photographs and paper documents.

Institutions have been making their desires known through website announcements, press releases, news stories, and other public appeals.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has formed what it calls a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force to document scientific and medical events, as well as impacts in business, politics, and culture. The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles has begun collecting images; the Dunn Museum in suburban Chicago is gathering stories and pictures; the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich., is asking for journals, art, and videos.

“What makes it challenging is we’re still in the middle of it,” said Melissa Marinaro of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which like other museums is closed to the public for now. “We’re getting a lot of submissions of journals and diaries, and artists have sent sketches, paintings, and drawings.”

Marinaro wants to acquire an example of the plastic safety shields that have sprung up at store check-out counters, “a piece that gives you a better sense of the physical experience, of the sentiment we’re all getting, that fear of what could be traveling in the air.”

Fashion designer Nancy Volpe Beringer shows how the protective masks fit on a mannequin at her Philadelphia studio. Though abundant now, masks may become one of the artifacts used to tell the story of the pandemic.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Fashion designer Nancy Volpe Beringer shows how the protective masks fit on a mannequin at her Philadelphia studio. Though abundant now, masks may become one of the artifacts used to tell the story of the pandemic.

One big challenge: There aren’t many distinct physical artifacts — one N95 mask is generally the same as another — compared to the numbers generated by other disasters or conflicts.

World War II produced millions of different pieces, including uniforms, guns, insignia, helmets, shells, maps, and medals, across more than 30 countries. So many relics have been retrieved from the sea-bed grave of the Titanic that anyone with a few dollars can buy a small piece of the ship on eBay.

Another complication is that no central physical site defines the pandemic. People can walk the fields of Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy to sense how history unfolded, but there’s no specific location for the COVID-19 disaster.

If history holds, there might not even be a monument.

None was erected a century ago when Philadelphia was devastated by the 1918 flu pandemic, suffering 14,000 fatalities in six weeks. Today, the only memorials are the gravestones of the dead.

The grave of Marie L. Hidell at The Woodlands in Philadelphia. Hidell, who was a Navy nurse, treated soldiers and sailors at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia during the 1918 influenza pandemic. While treating patients, she contracted the flu and died on Sept. 28, 1918.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The grave of Marie L. Hidell at The Woodlands in Philadelphia. Hidell, who was a Navy nurse, treated soldiers and sailors at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia during the 1918 influenza pandemic. While treating patients, she contracted the flu and died on Sept. 28, 1918.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, home to both the Mütter Museum and the Historical Medical Library, is working to document and save digital material on how its members and fellows are responding to the outbreak. Ultimately, the project will show how an institution dedicated to high medical ideals reacted to the crisis.

The college has joined with the 40-member Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections to coordinate and eventually share material gathered by organizations, from the American Philosophical Society to the William Way LGBT Community Center to the Free Library.

“We’re gathering, but we’re not interpreting,” said college librarian Beth Lander. “Right now we are still in the event.”

The constant challenge to curators is to predict what will be meaningful in a hundred years.

Photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer-Prize-winning image of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. Two flags were raised that day - the second is shown in the photograph - and were immediately recognized as historically important.
Associated Press
Photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer-Prize-winning image of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. Two flags were raised that day - the second is shown in the photograph - and were immediately recognized as historically important.

Some items are instantly recognized as historically important. The American flags that flew at Iwo Jima — the Marines raised two on Feb. 23, 1945, though only the second was captured in the famous photograph — were in the possession of the Marine Corps Museum even before the war ended.

Other, ordinary pieces can be made significant by events that follow.

Some years ago, a customer at a Liverpool yard sale found an old letter from a local musician tucked inside a book. The note happened to have been written in 1960 by an 18-year-old Paul McCartney, inviting a mystery drummer to audition for a job in the still-forming Beatles.

It sold for $55,412 at auction in 2011.

The still-evolving Beatles are pictured here in December 1961, with Pete Best on drums. He would be replaced by Ringo Starr eight months later. Early letters and belongings of the not-yet-famous group would become prized and valuable artifacts.
The still-evolving Beatles are pictured here in December 1961, with Pete Best on drums. He would be replaced by Ringo Starr eight months later. Early letters and belongings of the not-yet-famous group would become prized and valuable artifacts.

A big reason that institutions are moving even amid the pandemic is that time is merciless, said Philip Mead, chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Its passage means physical items must survive more years, more moves, more fires, more keep-or-throw-out decisions, more changing notions of worth.

“Every generation sort of curates the surviving items from the past, selects out things that can be discarded and what needs to be preserved,” he said. “Those choices differ as we change our ideas about what we believe, who should be commemorated, what we want to inspire future generations.”

It’s a mistake to think that what’s abundant today — like protective masks — will be plentiful tomorrow. Tens of thousands of enlisted men’s coats were made and worn during the Revolution., Mead said. Today, none is known to survive.

Mannequins and signs like this one, seen along Browning Road near Haddon Avenue in Collingswood in May, are among the kind of physical objects that curators may use to tell the story of the pandemic to Americans not yet born.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Mannequins and signs like this one, seen along Browning Road near Haddon Avenue in Collingswood in May, are among the kind of physical objects that curators may use to tell the story of the pandemic to Americans not yet born.

Philadelphia has endured at least two previous plagues: Yellow Fever in the summer of 1793, which killed 10% of the 50,000 residents in what was then the nation’s capital and largest city, and the flu that sickened a quarter of the 2 million Philadelphians and killed 17,500 from September 1918 through February 1919.

The 1918 flu hit so quickly and viciously that “it didn’t leave many artifacts behind,” said historian Jane E. Boyd, who helped create the Mütter’s prescient exhibit on the topic, Spit Spreads Death, which opened last year for a multi-year run.

Perhaps its most moving artifact, found in Drexel University’s costume collection, was an embroidered purse tied to a powerful personal story.

In fall 1918, a New Jersey woman named Naomi Ford came to Philadelphia for some early Christmas shopping, buying her gifts and writing out tags for each family member. But Ford, who was pregnant, caught the flu and died on Oct. 21.

Her grief-stricken mother put away the never-delivered gifts. The purse emerged for the Mütter exhibit, still in its gift box and tagged, “For Cousin Helen.”

Jashan Smith (right) and a woman who didn’t want to give her name walk by a paste-up slogan on 27th Street near Poplar Street. The “Spit Spreads Death” slogan was used during the flu pandemic of 1918, and became the title of a Mutter Museum exhibition that examined the viral death and sickness in Philadelphia at the time.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Jashan Smith (right) and a woman who didn’t want to give her name walk by a paste-up slogan on 27th Street near Poplar Street. The “Spit Spreads Death” slogan was used during the flu pandemic of 1918, and became the title of a Mutter Museum exhibition that examined the viral death and sickness in Philadelphia at the time.

Today, Boyd said, she would save the pieces that seem common. Masks. Ventilators. Quarantine signs. Diaries. The hand-drawn rainbow pictures that people put in their windows for children. Even unemployment documents, say, a handwritten list of the hundred times someone tried to call the government office for aid.

The millions of digital photos, audios and videos offer rich, in-the-moment documentation of the pandemic. But they would take lifetimes to review. And the machines that store them will become obsolete, meaning the material will need to be transferred again and again.

“All the social media — it’s going to be hard to know what to save and what to keep,” Boyd said. “I don’t envy the future historians, a hundred years from now, who’ll have to sort through all of this.”

If you have something to donate: People who have objects, documents or physical artifacts they wish to share with museums should contact the institutions directly, through the information on their websites.