Our summer intern Isabelle has been sharing her progress as she works on an outreach kit about immigration, migration and refugees. This week she discusses the challenges of working on a project of this scope during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For museums and other education institutions the COVID-19 pandemic has created new barriers to research and outreach.

When the pandemic hit Canada in March, libraries and archives closed. This meant my research was limited to my personal sources and those I could find online. Thankfully, as a UBC student, I have access to the UBC Library online collections, including full digital versions of articles and books. I could consult many secondary sources online without much trouble.

Finding primary sources was a bit trickier. I needed them for my research and to include in the education kits for students to read and analyze themselves. Fortunately, many libraries and archives in B.C. have digitized their collections over the past few years. I could sit in my living room and consult historical documents and photographs held in archives. I am particularly grateful to VMM Open Collections, the Royal BC Archives, the City of Vancouver Archives, UBC Library Open Collections, SFU Library Digitized Collections and the University of Victoria Libraries Online British Colonist database. The tireless work of archivists made it possible for me and countless other researchers around the world to access key sources despite restrictions on movement. Of course, not everything has been (or can be) digitized. Because so many archives remain closed or are open with strict restrictions, I have been unable to include every source I’d hoped to. 

This is one of the main limitations of my project, and it makes the outreach kit itself an artifact of this time. When future historians ask, “how did researchers adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic?” they can use my outreach kit (and these blog posts) as a primary source! 


At the other end of the outreach process is the use of the kits by teachers. This is also negatively impacted by the pandemic. Back to school in BC is scheduled for September, but with new health guidelines that include physical distancing and disinfection of shared physical objects. These classroom conditions are not conducive to small groups crowded around small photos.

Object handling proves another challenge, as there is no way to sanitize some objects between each student handling it. For example, one activity involves students passing around, examining and analyzing work tools like fishing equipment, watering cans and sewing supplies. This is hard to do when the teacher has to sanitize the object between each student and also has the potential to damage the object itself. Furthermore, teachers will be focused on adapting to a new classroom environment and probably will not have the bandwidth to incorporate new education kits into their lesson plans.

The museum will likely not be renting out this outreach kit for at least a year. We’re waiting to buy the objects we’ll include in the kits and print the physical copies of the documents included in the kit (teacher’s guide, timelines, primary documents, etc.). This means other museum staff will finish preparing the kit, which makes sense since this, like all other education tools, has been a joint effort.

I have learned so much from this project—about our history, about learning and about myself. This has been a chance to explore my future career while producing something real. I am proud of the outreach kit we have created, and I believe it does important work by telling stories that are often overlooked or forgotten. It is strange, though, to realize that no students or teachers will get to see or use the kit for many months after it’s finished. These are strange times, after all.

Image: NIAID / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)