It happened very quickly. When I say “it,” you know what I mean; that unimaginable shift in daily life which saw high streets hushed by an eerie silence and cultural institutions close their doors to visitors. For the past two weeks, my working landscape has taken a different shape. As a Curatorial Intern at The Museum of Cornish Life I usually spend 60% of my day documenting our art store, 5% climbing ladders (supported by colleagues, of course!), 20% curating displays and 15% supplying our fabulous band of volunteers with coffee (I pretend to do this for the good of our workforce, but chatting with volunteers is always the highlight of my working day). The Museum’s temporary closure has led to me working remotely on Museum policy and focussing on digital content, culminating in a very valid learning experience, just one I wasn’t expecting.
I returned to the Museum for the first time yesterday to carry out some essential building checks. It was odd, undeniably, to see the cobbled pathways empty of visitors and no name but my own on the sign-in sheet. The balcony where I’d been working on art store documentation had a certain “Mary Celeste” vibe; a haphazard collection of acid-free paper, easels and open notebooks undisturbed by tremors outside the Museum’s doors. The stillness of it all was unsettling at first but when I took a moment to look around me, to consider the objects and stories held by the Museum of Cornish Life, I felt steadily reassured. This is not the first time the durability of collective human spirit has been tested and I need only to look at our wartime collection to remember that. In challenging times history, particularly social history, is of vital importance. It is the pulling together of tangible truths, narratives of hardship and survival which give us the strength to move forwards. And in this moment, we ourselves are making history. I am certain that one day “Stay at Home, Save Lives” posters will be displayed in glass cases, much like the “Your Country Needs You” notices of WW1. Archived footage of people lining the streets and clapping for carers will play on loop in museums whilst oral history projects will document the kindness of strangers. Future generations will face challenges of their own, and know they can survive, because we did.
When it’s difficult to vision what the future looks like, it’s easy to feel daunted. But in those moments when I take a breath and consider just what’s happened over the past three weeks, I feel overwhelmingly proud; proud of my colleagues whose enduring creativity and humour bring light to the most uncertain times, proud of my fellow interns for their commitment to supporting one another and proud to work for an institution which is stitched resolutely together by the seams of human stories. It seems to me that sometimes the only way to move forwards is by standing together and looking back.