Blog

April 22, 2020

Object of the Week: 1918 Flu Masks

At OMCA, we’ve always made a point of collecting objects that tell the important stories of California’s past, present, and potentially, future.

by OMCA

Every week, OMCA staff—from curators to gallery guides—reflect on an object from the Museum's extensive collections that shares insights and inspiration for our present moment. 

From Drew Johnson, OMCA Curator of Photography and Visual Culture: They say that history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. When the coronavirus pandemic started, like a lot of people I immediately thought of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 19.

At the Oakland Museum of California, we’ve always made a point of collecting objects that tell the important stories of California’s past, present, and potentially, future. So I wasn’t surprised to discover that our collection holds a group of objects and photographs documenting the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on the San Francisco Bay Area.

The first is an actual facemask from 1918, one of three in the collection. We don’t know the exact story, but apparently these were kept by survivors, perhaps as reminders of a traumatic time in their lives. Or maybe they were saved as protection against a future breakout. The second item is a poster reminding people in very direct terms of the importance of wearing such masks and what might happen if you don’t.

Simple objects like these help connect us to people just like us from more that a century ago who faced a challenge we can all relate to today.

What do you think museums should collections from our current moment? Let us know in the comments.

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