Historical Society Collects First-hand Pandemic Experiences

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Local History , COVID-19

A sign in front of a house on Parallel Street, Harwich Port, in April.  FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — The Harwich Historical Society is looking for people to become a part of the town’s history by sharing first-hand experiences about living through the coronavirus pandemic. The society is collecting these experiences to help future generations understand what it was like living through this time.

“Your observations now can be the primary sources for future historians,” Harwich Historical Society Director Marie Kesten Zahn said. “We live in a digital age and can communicate and connect to each other in ways that are so different than people in our past. We communicate differently in some ways, but people have been writing journals for thousands of years.”

She said this is a unique opportunity to journal the changes the local community, the country and around the world. She is urging people to take notes about what they are seeing in the news, among friends, family, neighbors and throughout the community.

Given the digital age and the many ways today of recording experiences, Zahn is encouraging people to participate not only through journal entries but through video or audio, poetry, drawings, collages and other means of expression. By way of example, she said her aunt is doing pandemic pet portraits.

The project idea came initially from Bryan Shaw, a teacher at the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, but it spread rapidly. Zahn said a few historical societies on the Cape are participating with the idea of creating exhibits, but in Harwich primary sources are being sought to document, through journals and stories, this important time in history and develop an archive for future historians.

Zahn said a former colleague from New Jersey saw her program and is having his students document the pandemic. It will be good to have a younger perspective, she said. She has discussed a similar approach with Richard Houston at Monomoy Regional High School.

The project got started in March, Zahn said, and she has about 20 people participating so far. At that time she reached out to various groups and introduced the project through the society's website and newsletter. As the pandemic stretches out, she'd like to draw more people into the project.

People have responded in different ways. Some are still keeping journals, others were sending material every couple of weeks and some are experiencing pandemic fatigue, she said.

The project has a list of guiding questions for people to journal on, such as “how has your life changed and have you adapted your normal routines?” “How are you keeping busy and are you learning new skills and hobbies or returning to activities you haven’t done in years?” There are questions about working from home and reconnecting with family and friends. “Are you a student now learning remotely?” “Did you see anything today that gave you hope? Anxiety? Fear? (In person, in the news or on social media.)”

Along with the pandemic, there are social issues happening at this time, including racial protests, Zahn noted. One question asks if you see any examples of racism, privilege, and/or income inequity in any of the events that happened today.

A lot of the historical documentation at Brooks Academy Museum is about cranberries and the Pine Grove Seminary and other Harwich related history, Zahn said, because people back in the 1800s wrote down their experiences and the documents were preserved. She added that she has not come across any archives that document first-hand experiences of an important time in the country’s history.

“I don’t think we have anything too close to what we’re asking for here,” she said. “This is a little bit different.”

More participants are welcome. Zahn is encouraging people to send pandemic experiences as they occur. Additional information about the project can be obtained at info@HarwichHistoricalSociety.org or by calling the historical society at 508-432-8089.