A piece of pandemic lockdown-era Riverside is headed to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
The Community Quarantine Quilt, a project launched by the Riverside Arts Center during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when many families sheltered in their homes to avoid infection, has been accepted and will be a permanent part of the Field Museum’s new Pandemic Collection, which includes objects, audio, art, photos, multimedia material – even memes — and tells the story of how people here in the Chicago area faced up to the challenges and found creative ways to confront them.
“There was a real sense of responsibility to preserve this quilt. We had been looking for a place where it could be preserved and shared and presented as a community gift,” said Liz Chilsen, executive director of the Riverside Arts Center, who learned of the Pandemic Collection via an artist friend, Beth Adler, whose own handmade pandemic journal is part of the collection.
“When Beth mentioned the Field Museum, I thought it’d be a dream,” Chilsen said. “It’s just thrilling.”
On May 27, Jacob Campbell, an environmental anthropologist at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center and the Pandemic Collection’s project co-leader, personally accepted the quilt at Riverside Arts Center from Chilsen, RAC President Jeremy Black and Interim Gallery Director Joanne Aono.
“The quilt is a beautiful representation of this mixture of resilience, hope and an expression of those things in ways that speak to the community there in Riverside,” Campbell said. “That’s what we’re trying to capture and express better [in the collection].”
The Field Museum in April launched the Pandemic Collection website.
Field Museum staff initiated the Pandemic Collection effort in summer 2020, when the pandemic and the fallout from the killing of George Floyd collided. As a result, the collection reflects themes of social justice as well as COVID-19 itself.
“We were grappling with how to make sense of what was going on in the world,” Campbell said. “We felt it was important to have the social justice movement reflected here in Chicago and around the world in not insignificant ways.”
It also grew from what museum staff felt was a lack of such a record from the last great pandemic, the influenza outbreak of 1918.
“Some on our team recognized early on in the COVID pandemic that the museum had very few objects associated with the Spanish flu, which had a massive impact on society,” Campbell said. “We felt this was an oversight and we wanted to address that with this moment.”
The Community Quarantine Quilt was Riverside Arts Center’s attempt to channel the community’s pandemic experience as an artistic expression. Bridget Juister, at the time a new member of RAC, spearheaded the project, delivering muslin squares and fabric scraps to local homes and then assembling the finished squares into the roughly 4-by-5-foot quilt.
Juister’s own contribution to the quilt was a square depicting a scene in nature, a common choice among those creating squares for the quilt. Her mother, Kathy Stegmann, designed a square featuring a heart embroidered with the words “hugs & kisses” – the two things she missed most during the forced isolation of lockdown.
“All of the themes that were present in the quilt – home, nature, love – those are the things required for a secure lifetime experience,” Juister said. “This is something that is a perfect symbol of what the pandemic experience was.”
That a work of art whose production she directed and to which she and her mother contributed also has special meaning, Juister said.
“It going to the Field Museum exceeded my expectations,” she said. “Most of us don’t leave a legacy. For it to be there forever is beyond honorable.”
Campbell said the Pandemic Collection team is beginning to think about how the collection might be physically displayed, perhaps starting out with pop-up exhibits and maybe a larger formal exhibition down the road, “when there’s some critical distance from the pandemic, ideally.”
The museum could also publish a book about the collection. The team is also considering items for the collection. Anyone interested in pitching the team can do so by clicking here.