Head of Conservation – Heritage Department – MUNAÉ
Shortly after the first lockdown in May 2020, the French National Museum of Education (Musée national de l’éducation, MUNAÉ ) acquired three children’s sanitary masks that were designed as part of a local community initiative to help the pupils attending school in the Rouen area combat the epidemic. The context in which the items were manufactured, distributed and used, justified their prompt entry into the museum’s collection.
Today, some of the major issues that were at the core of the pandemic as first experienced by the general public in France have almost been forgotten. Among them, the lack of protection masks first led to a massive incentive to emulate the individual and collective manufacturing of cloth masks modelled on the standardised ones that were widely distributed to the general public. Another such issue was the pressing need to reopen access to the schools with a strict health protocol that entailed wearing a mask throughout the day (with a fresh change between the morning and afternoon time periods). In Bois-Guillaume, a small town on the outskirts of Rouen, the « Chacunsonmask » campaign (“To each, one’s own” or, “one pupil, one mask”) was initiated by a local inhabitant whose professional activity had been reduced by the lockdown. The initiative led to the manufacture of over 1600 masks to be handed out to the children on their return to the local school. The Eden hotel, a local establishment in Bois-Guillaume whose business had also been seriously impacted by the lockdown, readily lent its premises over a two-week period: an improvised workshop was set up in the hotel building so that the masks could be made.
The initiative received the support of the local city council which not only advertised the project and sent out an appeal to volunteers and to donations to get the fabric and material needed to produce the masks but also organised their distribution to families. All in all, a dozen people contributed to the initiative through sewing, cutting, ironing or conditioning the masks, 1200 of which were specifically designed for young children (preschool and primary school levels). The city council then sent out a message to all the pupils’ parents asking them to come and collect the masks that were delivered free of charge to all on showing proof of the children’s school registration. In addition, another 460 masks were delivered by the city council services to the local middle school for use by teenagers attending “college” (Junior high school) and another 420 were made for the senior citizens in the community. The Eden Hotel supported the action by providing the white sheets used to manufacture the first batch of masks and also provided the individual plastic wrapper for each mask. The elastic band required to hold the masks in place was recycled from the playground facilities to be found in the schools themselves. Interestingly, a large majority of parents personally collected the masks for their children, testifying to the success of the operation.
Meanwhile, the National Museum of Education (MUNAE) had initiated a project dedicated to collecting items showcasing education in the lockdown period (still in progress). Quite naturally, the “To each, one’s own” mask campaign was rapidly identified as falling into the category of objects that epitomized the period and an original local initiative. Among the three masks now in the collection, one is a plain white one, made white sheets from the hotel and two are cloth masks (a smaller size designed for a primary school pupil and a larger one meant for a junior school pupil).
As of September 2021, all the masks that had been hand-produced were declared obsolete by the government as new health regulations were enforced. However, the masks manufactured as part of the action campaign were worn for several months by a fair proportion of pupils (percentage unknown) and remain a testimony of the first stage of the pandemic and the local population’s concerns and response to the lockdown situation. Last but not least, these masks clearly demonstrate the wider public’s keen awareness of the value of school as a place of education and learning.