Beatrice Behlen

Museum of London

Like museum staff elsewhere, the curatorial team at the Museum of London began thinking about documenting the effects of the pandemic as soon as Britain went into lockdown in mid-March 2020. One of the first objects we put aside was a cotton facemask, which illustrates a number of aspects of the museum’s wider Collecting COVID project.

According to John W. Murphy, President/General Manager of Natasha Zinko x DUOltd, the ‘upcycled sustainable machine washable face mask’ was created by Ukranian-born, London-based fashion designer Zinko and her son Ivan for ‘front line communities working through the COVID-19 pandemic’. 600 masks were donated to London cycle couriers, before they were also made available to buy online with 50 percent of the proceeds going to the NHS, Britain’s National Health Service. By mid-September 2020, the company had donated £5000. [1]

The masks were advertised on Instagram with two films, only one of which is still available online. We collected these two shorts as well; they are made with humour but also acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. Alongside other objects, such as two hand sanitisers made by a London gin and whiskey distillery respectively, the mask will enable us to show how some companies switched their facilities to producing difficult to obtain commodities. And like the examples of workwear made for hospital staff made by one of the many London ‘scrub hubs’ we also took in, the face mask is one example of the many initiatives supporting the much-loved NHS.

The object also demonstrates another aspect of our methodology – we decided to focus on collecting objects that had already been made, rather than ask Londoners to create something especially for the museum. This approach did not always work, some aspects of the pandemic, such as grieving or the effects on mental health, were hard to evidence with objects so we recorded interviews or commissioned artists to work with communities and individuals to produce something we can keep.

So far, we have made more than 200 acquisitions as part of Collecting COVID, which equates to more than 650 individual objects. These include four more examples of mask making and wearing: three face masks upcycled from football shirts by the independent sportswear designer Georgina Hunt; two masks – one with the Greek, the other with the Cypriot flag – representing the donor’s British Greek Cypriot identity; ten masks made of colourful fabrics by housewife Elaine Lee, originally from Hong Kong, who found herself stranded in London while visiting her son, together with a brooch by Daisy Choi with the words ‘Every Day is a Good Day’, and four mask of African wax print fabric made by the donor for family and friends.

Lastly, Natasha Zinko’s mask bears witness to one other aspect of the Collecting COVID Project. It is not unusual for museum employees to donate objects themselves; particularly our Printed Ephemera collection contains many ‘staff finds’ such as leaflets, brochures and magazines. However, not since the last World War had the museum collected around a topic, which deeply affected everyone involved personally. The pushbike courier who had received this mask and was unable to use it because it was too small is my partner.

[1] Email of John W Murphy to Beatrice Behlen, 15 September 2020