Ringling Museum Archivist Catalogs Life in the Time of COVID-19

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN; ANDREW.FABIAN@SRQME.COM SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAY 15, 2020

When disaster strikes, planning for the future decreases in importance as surviving the present consumes us. For many, personal safety, financial security and maybe a dash of cabin fever all contribute to a present-centered awareness. But for Susan O’Shea, the struggles of today are an opportunity to bolster our abilities to cope with disaster in the future—if we can take some steps to help us remember them. “We’re living through this unprecedented event,” she says, “and I think it’s important to document our experience.” As The Ringling’s archivist by day and her own biographer by night, O’Shea has been busy with a home project that sounds old fashioned in today’s age of cloud storage and social media history: assembling a time capsule. In her field of study, few things carry the emotional and temporal heft of physical objects—and with her time capsule, she hopes to memorialize the present to enrich the future.

O’Shea’s days are filled with the fulfillment of research requests, digging through troves of dusty documents and old artwork to offer researchers and the public access to our history. “A lot of the requests I get are actually from descendants of circus performers,” she says. In her ideal world, there would be no shortage of objects and records to help us contextualize the present and plan for the future. “People in the future are gonna want to know how we lived,” she says, particularly when considering the COVID-19 pandemic may not be the last time we find ourselves isolated largely indoors. So, O’Shea has taken to producing a trove of personal artifacts that will allow her to eventually look back on her own experience during this time and reflect. She keeps a journal to capture her thoughts and feelings, cuts newspaper clippings to create snapshots of the virus narrative and takes daily photos to track any changes in her appearance. “All types of personal archiving have value in some way,” she says, “and a time capsule can allow for different mediums to be kept together.”

She adds Tik Tok videos, printouts of memes, flash drives and postcards to her time capsule, but O’Shea has one strong admonition for those interested in documenting their own experiences for posterity: “I wouldn’t bury it!” Contrasting the romanticized act of cramming objects into a sealed container and stuffing it in a hole in the dirt, she recommends keeping time capsules in a temperature-controlled part of the home to reduce the risk of moisture and sun damage. This way, 100 years from now when historians, archivists and great-great-grandchildren dig into the past, they will find a trove of objects awash in the patina of 2020. “I hope that people document this experience,” she says, “so people like me can look back at some point and see how we survived it.”

Pictured: With craftiness and humor, Susan O’Shea chronicles her life in the time of COVID-19. Photo by Susan O'Shea.

« View The Friday May 15, 2020 SRQ Daily Edition
« Back To SRQ Daily Archive

Read More

Turning Points Announces 25th Anniversary Community Engagement & Advancement Campaigns

Turning Points Announces 25th Anniversary Community Engagement & Advancement Campaigns

Dec 3, 2020

SRQ Strong Presents Peer Specialists: A Trauma-Informed Approach To Recovery

SRQ Strong Presents Peer Specialists: A Trauma-Informed Approach To Recovery

Dec 1, 2020

Selby Substitute

Selby Substitute

Olivia Liang | Dec 1, 2020

All Roads Lead to Hope

All Roads Lead to Hope

Brittany Mattie | Dec 1, 2020