With the city on the verge of total shutdown and coronavirus worries rampant, Christopher D. Cantwell, a UW-Milwaukee history professor, has started gathering an archive of this remarkable moment in history.
“It’s established practice to do something like this when something so monumental happens,” Cantwell says. “Historical institutions commit to opening their doors and taking in documents and records that might help preserve the community’s memory for future generations.”
The site’s goal is to memorialize how Milwaukee experienced this global pandemic. Cantwell and one of his classes have taken on the task of curating submissions and material for the collection. They are enlisting the help of every Milwaukeean who wants to contribute something to the archive, be it photographs of shuttered businesses, notifications from employers, personal stories, examples of social distancing in the community, and anything else that records the strange times around us.
They have particularly flagged an interest in emails, noting that much of the communication in this confusing situation is occurring in isolation over electronic channels. Documenting communications around various businesses and organizations closing, staying open, or switching to a different working model will be of historical interest in the future.
“My hope is that people will use the site to share items and stories that would otherwise get lost in the documentary record,” Cantwell says.
That includes funny memes, strange sights and other meditations on what is occurring, and he especially would like to see some stories about how families are planning for long-term quarantines with their children.
The archive was created with the help of Ann Hanlon and Jie Chen, of the UWM Libraries, which is hosting the site. Cantwell posted the first item to the site on March 15th and sent out of the first small announcement on March 17th. In that short time since the archive went live, they’ve already collected multiple photos of local businesses with closed signs plastered across the windows, such as Rosebud Cinema and Collectivo Coffee. Other photos show ransacked grocery store shelves, signs discouraging the use of cash, and an empty Prospect Avenue on this year’s especially subdued St. Patrick’s Day. One of their most recent posts is about Ian’s Pizza on North Avenue, which is now having customers shout orders through a closed window from outside.
“You’re never going to see that again,” Cantwell says. “I hope people contribute so we can remember the enormity of this moment.”