Perspectives Daily

Meeting Need, Collecting Need

Creating Museum Collections around COVID-19 and Hunger

Amanda B. Moniz | Apr 1, 2021

In the past year, COVID-19 has made the chronic problem of food insecurity in the United States one of the defining experiences of the pandemic. As record numbers of Americans have filed for unemployment as a result of jobs lost to the health crisis and others lost wages without being eligible for public support, many have known hunger. News and social media have been full of stories about this suffering caused by the pandemic and by efforts to alleviate the misery. Those efforts include the extension of unemployment benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Farmers to Families Food Box program, and other public support; the work of food banks and other philanthropic programs; ongoing endeavors to build more equitable food systems; and mutual aid. Hunger and response to it, then, are as fundamental to the history of the pandemic as the lives lost—a history Americans are already documenting and telling. Almost as soon as COVID-19 emerged in the United States, museums and archives began collecting objects, documents, and digital materials so that people in the future, and we ourselves, can make sense of Americans’ experiences during the pandemic. At the Smithsonian, we quickly recognized the centrality of hunger in telling the story of COVID-19 and its ramifications. 

A 19th-century needlepoint, created by Rachel Breck, is the earliest example of food assistance in the National Museum of American History’s collections.

A 19th-century needlepoint, created by Rachel Breck, is the earliest example of food assistance in the National Museum of American History’s collections. Division of Cultural and Community Life, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

However, acquiring objects to tell the stories of American hunger is distinctly challenging. First, the things most fundamental to food aid aren’t collectable. Perishable or packaged food and discarded containers from food donations rot, smell, attract vermin, and aren’t practical for museum collections. In spite of these challenges, preserving this history from the viewpoints of those tapping into food assistance options is essential, since they can best explain whether and how relief efforts meet their needs and priorities. 

Second, charities understandably protect the privacy of their clients, and telling suffering people’s stories runs the risk of becoming “poverty porn,” an exploitation of low-income people that has visceral appeal for potential donors. Moreover, some people feel shame about turning to public or private relief programs. Meanwhile, the informal support that has always been important to making ends meet doesn’t produce the sorts of objects and records that charities create. 

As the curator of the history of philanthropy at the National Museum of American History, I explore both how Americans act on and experience generosity as well as how they experience and challenge inequality. The question of how to collect objects related to hunger and other forms of distress is something I think about a lot and discuss with colleagues whose collecting areas intersect with mine.

I started by surveying our holdings relating to food assistance in earlier periods.

In considering what the National Museum of American History might collect, I started by surveying our holdings relating to food assistance in earlier periods. Knowing what we already have is fundamental to collections stewardship and allows for rich contextualization of the stories behind existing holdings and newly collected objects. This search yielded objects that date from 1810 to 2019 and represent aspects of Americans’ responses to hunger. The earliest is a silk embroidery titled Charity, done by New England schoolgirl Rachel Breck, depicting a young woman giving bread to a small boy. I found materials from charitable endeavors, including the program for a 1887 charity event held at the Metropolitan Opera House during the Jewish holiday of Purim; a 1972 Meals on Wheels leaflet; a 1980s T-shirt from a walk to fight hunger; an apron from a Santa Fe, New Mexico, meal program for people with AIDS; and more. The most recent acquisitions relate to relief efforts during the 2019 federal government shutdown, including a large stockpot from the World Central Kitchen food distribution program. 

By far the largest category includes food stamp coupons and SNAP or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. The paper food stamp coupons date from the 1980s and celebrate the founding era with depictions such as the Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. With 1996 welfare reform, SNAP began replacing paper coupons with plastic benefit cards, which function like a debit card. Some states’ cards have minimal design, such as the gold card from Rhode Island. Others convey the heritage of particular states, with New Mexico’s card depicting baskets of chili peppers. Unintentionally, the preponderance of public food assistance materials highlights the greater scope and range of government support in contrast to voluntary efforts. 

Even though many of these materials were collected for other reasons, they can all be used to illuminate experiences of hunger and food assistance programs.

As I researched what the museum already had, I wondered why these things were collected and to what purpose. Do these objects build empathy? For whom? Whose experiences do they help us understand? What don’t we have? How do objects already in the museum’s collection help us understand our experience today? Some of these objects were not collected to tell the story of food assistance. Rachel Breck’s embroidery exemplifies the education of girls in the early Republic. While the image helps us understand how Americans idealized charity in the early national period, it obscures their work institutionalizing benevolence in that era: American philanthropists, drawing on ideas from overseas associates, began establishing soup kitchens in the early 1800s. Like the Breck piece, many of the philanthropic objects center the experiences of givers. The apron is a donor premium (or thank you gift) that allows donors to remind themselves of and display for others their concern about hunger. Meanwhile, the T-shirt from the walk to fight hunger honors disabled Vietnam War veteran Bob Wieland’s storied 1986 walk across America. It features an image of a double amputee on a knuckle board and is catalogued as a disability awareness object, not a food charity object. As the T-shirt reveals, objects have multiple meanings and allow us to hear many voices. 

A 19th-century needlepoint, created by Rachel Breck, is the earliest example of food assistance in the National Museum of American History’s collections.

New Mexico’s EBT card depicts chili peppers, an ingredient important in southwestern cuisine. National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

We work to recognize the multiplicity of perspectives as we catalog our holdings. Thus, even though many of these materials were collected for other reasons, they can all be used to illuminate experiences of hunger and food assistance programs. These objects, however, don’t originate with people in need. 

As I begin to collect items rooted in the perspectives of the people experiencing hunger or other forms of need during COVID-19, I am guided by respect for how people craft survival strategies in hard times and an awareness that I must win their trust. The objects that tell their stories are likely to be personal and powerful. I am currently working with colleagues on the early stages of a collecting initiative focused on the staff and patients of Mary’s Center, a community health center serving predominantly Latinx communities in the Washington, DC, area. The center connects clients with food assistance resources and may provide an entry point for exploring hunger from the vantage point of those experiencing it. From soup kitchens to “backdoor begging” to drive-through food banks, Americans have sought food aid in changing ways as hunger has endured and grown in 2020 and 2021. Telling their stories doesn’t relieve hunger, but, with humility, I hope it helps us recognize the lives of those who have experienced it.


Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Her book, From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016), received the inaugural Peter Dobkin Hall History of Philanthropy Prize.


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