Act now to save coronavirus experiences for future generations: State Historical Society of Iowa

Historical Society of Iowa seeks real-time submissions

Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa's State Curator
Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa’s State Curator

Hand sanitizer, toilet paper rolls, face masks.

They’re all part of a future exhibit of the impact of the coronavirus on Iowa and how Iowans coped with the pandemic.

But documenting the deadly disease is not just for the future. The State Historical Society of Iowa already is documenting coronavirus, in real time.

“We have a long history of documenting the lives and experiences of Iowans and we actually have a pretty good tradition, when it comes to the most relevant experiences, of collecting in real time,” said Leo Landis, curator for the Historical Society’s museum, who is guiding the collection of materials for that future coronavirus exhibit.

Recognizing the significance of what was happening, Landis went up the hill from the Des Moines museum the day in March when the Iowa Legislature suspended its session to help stop the spread of COVID-19 to shoot photos of the health screening tent outside the Capitol.

“I knew that, hey, this is Day 1 of things being different,” he said.

The society has been collecting the history of Iowa and Iowans since 1857, through war and peace, floods and droughts, depressions, recessions, waves of immigrations and more, said Landis, who grew up in Clive and earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Iowa State University. He has a master’s in museum studies from Eastern Illinois University and has done work on Ph.D. in ag and rural history at ISU.

A museum curator for about 20 years, he has been with the State Historical Society of Iowa since 2013.

To capture the stories of this time, the Historical Society is inviting Iowans to submit materials that can help future generations understand the pandemic and its impact across the state.


Q. What is it that you’re asking Iowans to contribute — empty hand sanitizer bottles and empty toilet paper rolls?

A: “We don’t need 200 selfies of people with masks,” Landis said, but photos of a Mother’s Day gathering with everyone masked or other events that were shaped by COVID-19 are examples of the type of artifacts the museum is looking for to help preserve the stories.

At this time, the society is accepting digital submissions — photos, emails, videos, blogs and more — as well as suggestions about physical artifacts that could be donated at a later time, when the society’s facilities reopen to the public.

Q. Isn’t the official record of the pandemic being documented through the official records of actions of state government — the Governor’s Office, Department of Public Health and other state agencies?

A: “Yes, but we also want to gather the stories of Iowans in real time. The journals and diaries or photographs that are being taken or recorded now are important for us as well.”

The society is particularly interested in stories and materials that reflect the pandemic’s ripple effects on health care, education and labor. It’s looking for stories from Iowans about how the pandemic has affected their everyday lives, including social distancing, working from home and shifting school and other activities to virtual formats.

Q. Aren’t you worried that you will be flooded with face masks and some of the more mundane artifacts of the pandemic?

A: “I would say no. If you say, ‘Is a dozen homemade masks enough?’ I would probably say ‘yes’” as long as the cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity of the state is represented.


“We want to make sure we get the stories of all Iowans, whether it’s Latino ancestry, African American ancestry, European ancestry. We are the holders of the state’s history. That’s our role and mission. We will do our best to preserve and share your story to future Iowans. We take it seriously.”

Q. We joke about hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but what else do you hope Iowans will share?

A: “We would appreciate hearing of stories from people that are working in different processing plants or wherever they are working. If you’re an Iowan, and it’s a story that tells about your experience, we want to hear it. We know that the stories are going to be compelling, but especially if you’ve got a journal that you’ve been keeping ... an individual account of someone’s experience in the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 would be something we’d certainly be interested.”

Q. What will happen to the materials you gather?

A: “One of the things I always tell people who donate things to the museum collection is that as soon as we have processed it and photographed it, it’s available virtually for anyone with computer access.”

Q. When will these materials be on display in the museum, as part of an exhibit, for the public to see?

A: “I think in five to 10 years as we have some distance and can step away from that first draft of history. In five to 10 years I see these beings stories that Iowans will want to have a better understanding of how our state fared and addressed and persevered through this time. Ten years is about half of a generation. So, by 2030 I think there’ll be a story that we can have some distance and perspective on.”

For more information, including the online submission form, please visit

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