Change Over Timeis a semiannual, peer-reviewed journal of the history, theory, and praxis of conservation and the built environment. Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the journal is edited by Professor Frank Matero and Lecturer Kecia Fong, both of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation.
The latest issue 11.1 Legacies of Detention, Isolation, and Quarantine presents a kaleidoscope of perspectives on places of detention, isolation, and quarantine in history. The guest editor of the issue, David Barnes, associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University Pennsylvania, in framing this collection of essays, posed the questions, "Should we be ashamed of our spaces of detention and isolation, or should we celebrate them? Do they represent our worst tendencies to segregate, incarcerate, and oppress or our best humanitarian impulses to protect society from crime and disease, to rehabilitate, and to heal?"
In this excerpt from “Anticipating a Covid-19 Memorial Landscape: Quarantine and Migration Heritage as a Template?,” Gareth Hoskins, senior lecturer in human geography at Aberystwyth University, and Joanne Maddern, associate professor of geography at Swansea University, examine the role and function of migration and quarantine heritage in the circulation of health-related stories of national purity and biological vigor, which continue to be enacted and normalized through emerging COVID-19 remembrance practices. The full text is available in COT issue 11.1 Legacies of Detention, Isolation, and Quarantine and can be accessed through Project Muse.
In contemporary efforts to reduce infection, global leaders have repeatedly deployed tropes from their national narratives about genetic purity, a fear of outsiders, and the perpetual otherness of nonwhite groups. Contemporary border control elements such as hotel quarantine for foreign arrivals, red lists, strategies to "send the virus packing," and characterizations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as an "unknown mugger" or "assailant" "that attacks" play on migrant-related xenophobia that stems from US attitudes originating in the nineteenth century. These measures and beliefs cultivate anxiety about foreignness and cut against progressive shifts in the heritage and museum sector toward decolonization, reparation, and repatriation.
This paper connects Western migration and quarantine heritage to emerging commemorations of COVID-19 to compare their engagement with ideas about national identity, foreignness, and disease and, ultimately, make the case for more careful and sensitive approaches. To these ends, state-funded historic sites, monuments, museums exhibitions, and displays associated with the movement of peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are examined. The analysis moves through six sections. First, we link the emergence of migration and quarantine facilities around the world to nativist sentiment and racist assumptions about ethnicity, morality, hygiene, and health. Then, we consider quarantine more broadly as a cypher for national understandings about self and the other. Subsequent sections outline the ideological functions of official migration and quarantine heritage sites and then provide coverage of the recent operational struggles experienced at these sites and their attempts to maintain relevance in a world of reduced travel and funding. The conclusion anticipates the emerging heritage landscape of COVID-19.
We include a number of examples of migration and quarantine from around the world, but our focus falls primarily on Ellis Island and Angel Island immigration stations, two well-established points of arrival to the United States that involved inspection and quarantine between 1892 and 1924 (Ellis Island) and 1910 and 1940 (Angel Island). After a period of neglect and abandonment, these sites have since become national monuments operating under the National Park Service and California State Parks, respectively. As established and popular heritage destinations, Ellis Island and Angel Island now form a part of an international portfolio of historic sites, museums, and memorials dedicated to the histories of migration. (1) We see these sites as guideposts for ongoing attempts to create a new heritage of COVID-19 because of their common concern with the cross-border movement of people and punitive surveillance of contagious disease.
Heritage venues of migration and quarantine generate and subsequently celebrate a productive "supercitizen," to use Honig's term from her 2001 book Democracy and the Foreigner. The supercitizen is problematic because it distracts from the story of race and class-based exclusion at the border with a caricature of the eager immigrant known solely by their desire to access the nation state.(2) Therefore, the supercitizen is an archetype that brings the community together against a common external threat. We suggest that emerging commemorations of COVID-19, including museum-led efforts of collection, synchronous public spectacles of appreciation, ad hoc ceremonies, performance art interventions, and campaigns for memorials to the dead, pitch similar emblematic heroes against a foreign threat in order to obscure myriad ongoing oppressions.
Quite apart from what it might reveal about identity and exclusion, the emerging heritage of COVID-19 is, before anything else, an effort to recognize and pay tribute to the devastating loss of millions of lives. Archaeologists have found evidence of human memorials and funerary rituals as far back as the Upper Paleolithic period fifty thousand years ago.(3) But beyond a few exceptions relating to plague columns in medieval Europe and rare tributes to the deadliest disease event in human history, the 1918 "Spanish flu," like the one in the granite town of Barre, Vermont, our modern memorial culture most readily commemorates death through the lens of those lost in war. Additionally, just as military statues operate as symbols of sacrifice, gallantry, and patriotism, so the material heritage of migration and quarantine contributes to national stories in different ways. It is these heritage sites and their messaging around race, movement, disease, identity, and foreignness that are particularly relevant to the commemoration of COVID-19.
Migration and quarantine heritage sites are diverse and eclectic in their agendas. Their interpretive positions are organized to serve different communities with a range of remits and political perspectives. Nonetheless, they often frame their content within a broader patriotic narrative of freedom and promise to all. Early commemorations of the COVID-19 pandemic while often well-intentioned if somewhat haphazard, seem to be subject to similar populist pulls toward a celebratory sanitized nationalism against more critical expressions of regret in the acknowledgment of injustice.
In a context of increasing anti-Asian bigotry and violence we must recognize that while commemoration pays tribute to the past, it also makes future worlds possible. Decisions about what to display and interpret at historic migration and quarantine sites highlight particular kinds of people, legitimate particular kinds of conduct, and justify particular courses of action such as inspection and incarceration. The emerging heritage of COVID-19 will therefore shape the national conversation about who should, or should not, be included in similar ways.
This article is not therefore a prediction of what COVID-19 memorial practices will look like but rather a sketch of a range of possibilities and a cautionary reflection about some of the potential consequences. Before moving to consider the strategic function of migration and quarantine heritage in contemporary nation building, it is useful first to outline the logics that underpinned their initial construction as border control facilities.
1) Laurence Gouriévidis, Museums and Migration: History, Memory and Politics (London: Routledge, 2014); Claire Sutherland, "Leaving and Longing: Migration Museums as Nation-Building Sites," Museum and Society 12, no. 2 (April 2014): 118–31; Christopher Whitehead, Katherine Lloyd, Susannah Eckersley, and Rhiannon Mason, eds., Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe: Peoples, Places and Identities (London: Routledge, 2016).
2) Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
3) Paul Pettitt, The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial (London: Routledge, 2010).