By Sarah Darer Littman
Vince Briceland’s writing class at Greenwich Continuing Education only managed to meet one time, in early March. It was “a good first session,” Briceland says, although even as they met, armed with hand sanitizer and wipes, the future of ongoing in-person class sessions was uncertain.
The very next day, Greenwich Schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like all good writing teachers, Briceland tried to think of ways to motivate his students to keep writing. At the time, he also happened to be reading Erik Larsen’s latest bestselling book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which references a group known as Mass Observation.
Founded in 1937 by South African poet and journalist Charles Madge, documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and anthropologist Tom Harrisson, Mass Observation sought to study the everyday lives of ordinary Britons. One aspect of the project was giving people diaries and asking them to respond to directives about subjects ranging from pets during wartime, what keeps couples together, and reactions to Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches (“He’s no speaker, is he?” wrote one observer’s aunt).
Briceland, who has been teaching writing at Greenwich Continuing Education for seven years, was inspired to create the Mass Observation COVID-19 Project, or #MOC19. On March 23rd, he posted a call for volunteers:
A diary is a valuable historical testimony. We all are witnessing history in the making, right now, day by day. Personal narratives can be exceptionally candid and open in ways that other documentation cannot.
I’m proposing that writers of all experience levels use this time to record their perceptions and share them with others, forming a collective of witnesses worldwide: Mass Observation: COVID-19, or #MOC19.
There is no better time than now to share your unique story.
There are currently twenty-four writers who have signed up for the #MOC19 project, but Briceland would love to recruit more, from all over the country, and potentially the world.
“You do not have to be a professional writer to participate in this,” Briceland wants to emphasize. “Anyone can keep a diary, and these days it’s easy to keep them online. There are free blog sites where you can post your entries. Anyone who has a sharp eye and wants to share his or her story is absolutely welcome to join us.”
While the #MOC19 project is looking for writers around the country, Christopher Shields, Curator of Library and Archives at Greenwich Historical Society, is focused on capturing Greenwich residents’ first-hand accounts of the COVID-19 quarantine.
“What I think is so interesting is that although there are certain commonalities to everybody’s experience with this, a lot of it is so personal and so different depending on their situation, the family pressures they’re dealing with, work pressures they’re dealing with,” Shields said.
As an archivist, Shields preserves the past, but always with an eye for the future. “If I was trying to put on an exhibition about this time period, the things that I would want to turn to are letters, journal entries, photographs, music, sketches…it runs the gamut, but whatever gives the one-on-one individual experience that makes the understanding of a particular event or period so much more meaningful.”
While online diaries are free and easy to set up, Shields has to be concerned with how rapidly technology changes and preserving these accounts in a format that will be accessible to his successors in the future. “We want to capture it in a way that we can preserve it so that it’s still around in one hundred years. It’s wonderful that a lot of people blogging, and hopefully that will be around to access in one hundred years, but it’s a little riskier. I would rather have electronic files that I can print out and save, and photographic prints that I can make…really guaranteeing that fifty to one hundred years from now people will be able to access them and look back.”
Greenwich residents interested in contributing to the Historical Society archives can submit via a form on GreenwichHistory.org
The historical society is also using the building’s closure to create new content on the website, such as History from Home, an initiative to engage people with Greenwich History using pieces from the archives and the museum collection to sharing stories about people and places in Greenwich. “There’s such a rich history in Greenwich,” Shield says. “We’re trying to use whatever we can from our collection to make people more aware of that.”
He also shared good news for parents who have been thrust into the brave new world of homeschooling. The educational department is working on a video tour of the Bush-Holley House as well as lessons to engage young people with the town’s history. This will eventually have its own section on the Greenwich Historical Society website, so stay tuned.
Like Briceland, Shields wants to stress that one doesn’t have to be a professional writer or historian to contribute to the archives. “People tend to think that their experience isn’t important, but it is important,” he says. “The more individual perspectives that we have, the more useful it will be for people in the future to understand this period.”
In this week’s New Yorker, George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, wrote an open letter to his students encouraging them be the eyes and ears of future generations:
We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward. What new forms might you invent, to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the e-mails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970.) What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.
To get involved with MOC19, email Vance Briceland at [email protected].
To contribute to the Greenwich Historical Society archives, fill out the form here.