The Quarantine Quilt is now part of the Field Museum’s new collection

A piece of the pandemic lockdown era, Riverside, is heading to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The Community Quarantine Quilt, a project started by the Riverside Arts Center at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when many families were sheltering in their homes to avoid infection, has been accepted and will be part of the new pandemic collection from the Field Museum, which includes artefacts, audio, art, photos, multimedia material – even memes – and chronicles how Chicago-area residents have risen to challenges and found creative ways to to confront them.

“There was a real sense of responsibility to preserve this quilt. We were looking for a place where it could be kept and shared and presented as a community gift,” said Liz Chilsen, executive director of the Riverside Arts Center, who heard about the Pandemic Collection through an artist friend, Beth Adler, whose own the handmade pandemic diary is part of the collection.

“When Beth mentioned the Field Museum, I thought it would be a dream,” Chilsen said. “It’s just exciting.”

On May 27, Jacob Campbell, environmental anthropologist at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center and co-project leader of the Pandemic Collection, personally accepted the quilt at the Riverside Arts Center in Chilsen, RAC President Jeremy Black and Director by interim of the Joanne Aono gallery.

The Community Quarantine Quilt is filled with messages of hope, depictions of nature, tributes to caregivers and teachers, and other themes representing how Riversiders experienced the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bob Uphues/editor)

“The quilt is a beautiful representation of this mix of resilience and hope and expressing those things in a way that speaks to the community there in Riverside,” Campbell said. “That’s what we try to capture and express better [in the collection].”

In April, the Field Museum launched the Pandemic Collection website at pandemic-collection.fieldmuseum.org.

Field Museum staff launched the pandemic collection effort in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic and the fallout from the murder of George Floyd collided. As a result, the collection reflects themes of social justice as well as COVID-19 itself.

“We were struggling with how to make sense of what was happening in the world,” Campbell said. “We felt it was important that the social justice movement be reflected here in Chicago and around the world in a meaningful way.”

It also grew out of what museum staff felt was the lack of such a record of the last major pandemic, the 1918 flu epidemic.

“Some of our team recognized very early in the COVID pandemic that the museum had very few artefacts associated with the Spanish flu, which had a massive impact on society,” Campbell said. “We thought it was an oversight and wanted to address it right now.”

The Community Quarantine Quilt was the Riverside Arts Center’s attempt to channel the pandemic experience of community as artistic expression. Bridget Juister, then a new member of RAC, spearheaded the project, delivering muslin squares and fabric scraps to local homes, then piecing the finished squares into the roughly 4-by-5-foot quilt.

Juister’s own contribution to quilting was a square depicting a scene in nature, a common choice among those creating squares for quilting. Her mother, Kathy Stegmann, designed a square with a heart embroidered with the words ‘hugs and kisses’ – the two things she missed the most during the lockdown’s enforced isolation.

“All the themes that were present in the quilt — home, nature, love — these are the things needed for a secure living experience,” Juister said. “It’s something that’s a perfect symbol of what the experience of the pandemic has been like.”

That a work of art that she led the production of and contributed to by her and her mother also has a special meaning, Juister said.

“It exceeded my expectations at the Field Museum,” she said. “Most of us don’t leave a legacy. For him to be there forever is more than honorable.

Campbell said the Pandemic Collection team was starting to think about how the collection could be physically displayed, perhaps starting with pop-up exhibits and perhaps a larger formal display down the road, “when there is a critical distance from the pandemic, ideally.”

The museum could also publish a book on the collection. The team is also considering items for the collection. Anyone interested in introducing the team can click on the “contact” tab on the homepage of the Pandemic Collection website.

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