Before entering the new Cooper Hewitt exhibit, “Conception and Healing: Creative Responses to EpidemicsâI wondered if the most iconic museum-worthy Covid-19 object would be a bloodstained hospital ‘robe’ made up of trash bags and a shower cap.
It would sum up America’s unpreparedness for the threat of a pandemic – and the continued failure of communities to learn from the horrors New York City endured in the first weeks of the virus’ spread. Caregivers bound by the Hippocratic Oath are always endangered by unmasked and unvaccinated people, who do not commit to any oath to others.
At the Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, visitors won’t see the most loaded images of the pandemic, which is arguably appropriate at a time when we still live through Covid and the toll it extracts. But along with its conservatives, they may come to see this global emergency, like the epidemics of the past, as a source of extraordinary invention, allowing people to come together to solve problems in real time, breaking down bureaucratic barriers and old habits.
The innovation was the silver lining of Covid. The exhibition shows how epidemic diseases throughout history have shaped the behavior, warfare, the form of buildings and the infrastructure of cities. Face masks, ventilators and hospital tents are on display, but they draw considerable resonance from the rich historical context that is included.
These elements are a legacy of a previous iteration of the exhibit, ‘Design and the Future of Health Care’, designed before the pandemic – Covid demanded a pivot from what is now visible. It is organized by the principal curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Ellen lupton, and the architect Michael murphy, who heads the MASS Design Group, a Boston-based nonprofit that has been on the front lines of epidemiology for years. He has built facilities to help people recover from infectious diseases in some of the poorest and most conflict-prone places in the world, including Haiti and Rwanda. On December 9, the American Institute of Architects announced that MASS was the recipient of its Architecture Firm Award 2022, among its highest accolades.
The exhibition is loosely based on themes: the healing qualities of light and air, the means by which viruses are spread and therapeutic innovation in hospitals and intensive care facilities. The initial theme of the show is “Monitoring the body”, introduced at the entrance by a mannequin helmeted with sensors that the artist Samuel stubblefield used on human subjects to generate a sound and light installation.
The common thread of the exhibition is our basic need to breathe healthy air. âBreathing is a spatial issue,â Murphy told me on a tour. We wouldn’t need to resort to a fixed six-foot social distancing if we could only see and dodge the viruses swirling around us.
Studio Caret, based in Florence, Italy, elegantly encourages distancing by demarcating a plaza at Vicchio in a checkered tablecloth pattern, called “StoDistant. “In New York, Jennifer Tobias’ photographs document the hieroglyphic beauty of social distancing markers stuck on city sidewalks: butterflies, hearts and colorful abstractions that the heels of countless passers-by are slowly erasing.
Design and Healing dates back to the 1850s, when pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale transformed battlefield medicine by recognizing that infectious disease in field hospitals killed far more servicemen than their injuries. At around the same time, doctor John Snow mapped the distribution of a cholera outbreak in London. As authorities blamed the neglected habits of the poor for spreading disease, Snow correlated the data with areas served by private water companies, showing that contaminated water from a single pump was responsible for the epidemic.
Nightingale would bring his knowledge of the battlefield to the design of hospitals, which transformed the architecture of these buildings by separating clean air from dirty air, as well as sanitation and sunlight, dramatically improving the patient outcomes. Its legacy is found in the narrow, daylight-drenched wings and sleek curved balconies of the beautiful 1933 Sanatorium of Paimio, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in Paimio, Finland. These shapes aided in natural ventilation and captured healing sun rays, cementing an image of modern European architecture as healthy and hygienic.
Thanks to Snow and others, the health of cities would be transformed by the provision of clean water and sanitary sewers. Subsequent work in the new science of epidemiology would trace the source of diseases like tuberculosis and rickets to poor ventilation and lack of access to sunlight. While not covered in the exhibit, this information led New York to ban dark, airless apartment buildings and impose clear courts and “wedding cake” building setbacks to provide sunlight. and the breeze in the streets and courtyards.
âDesign and Healingâ shows how the MASS Design Group brought the lessons learned by Nightingale and Snow into the 21st century through clinics for Gheskio in Haiti, where clean water and electricity are lacking. A tuberculosis clinic channels the natural air flow to patient rooms and a healing garden through beautiful grilles made by local artisans. The undulating roof of a cholera clinic collects rainwater and brings in daylight. It cleans its contaminated wastewater with an anaerobic reactor which sanitizes by biological means.
Among the countless masks that amateur sewers and professional tailors have created to filter breath, the exposed handle shows elegant adaptations of turbans (designed by Timzy batra) and hijabs (created by Halima Aden). Icelandic artist rÃºrari produced a knit mask that is demonstrative if not particularly effective: two pink tongues emerge from clenched teeth and lipstick lips and curl up as if to press the mask around the nose, a humorous acknowledgment of people’s ineptitude – well , I am, anyway – to make sure their masks seal properly. Other masks express political views: one with the phrase “I can’t breathe” ticks the anti-police brutality box while highlighting the frequent devastation of Covid’s lungs.
A photo of tiny children’s heads sticking out of a tank-like iron lung, much like the one displayed, reminds me of how scared I was of polio as a child, and why I was older than willing to get stung with the polio vaccine, which was widely considered a miracle in the late 1950s.
However, these respiratory assistance devices, in a less monstrous form, are making a comeback. The exhibit shows the external pressure applied by newer, more portable and less intimidating versions of the Iron Lung, such as Shaash, a negative pressure ventilator on display here. It was designed and produced by the Bangladeshi firm Karnaphuli Industries and is less damaging to the body than ventilators which require physically invasive intubation and sometimes long-term sedation.
Although many people use fitness monitoring devices, the need to avoid contact with medical personnel throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has further broken the taboo against sharing our health information with them. more personal. Starting with devices like thermometers and pulse oximeters, the market for information capture devices has exploded. âDesign and Healingâ displays several sensors that monitor various bodily functions. The data they generate gives doctors and patients real-time information that can warn of dangerous medical episodes. Joanna Shulman, who was a digital health innovation consultant in Tiburon, Calif., Told me that the era of behavior modification through such body sensors is almost here – to treat drug addiction, help with weight loss, treat depression, etc. The exhibit doesn’t talk about the capabilities of the sensor technology it shows, so it can’t engage the thorny ethical dilemmas inherent in using the intimate information they collect.
A black poster with a pink triangle and the phrase “Silence = Death”, an iconic object from the start of the AIDS era, is also on display, perhaps to remind us that there is no equivalent appeal. to Covid action today. Produced for ACT UP, the poster talks about the urgency of activism in the crudest terms. The group urged people to join in theatrically brazen protests that brought the toll of the AIDS epidemic to the doors of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, which had been slow to respond (and faced with a then unknown official named Anthony Fauci). That so many still resist protecting themselves and others through masking and vaccination is the characteristic communication failure of the Covid pandemic.
The modest ‘Design and Healing’ cannot begin to grasp the mourning that must be faced in the face of the enormous losses from Covid, nor the calculation of our public and individual failures that must take place. It helps us appreciate optimism in the midst of despair and celebrates extraordinary achievements under duress. The long history of pandemic innovation gives us the belief that we can still get through the age of Covid and come out a little better than we were.
Conception and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics
Until February 20, 2023, at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., (212) 849-8400; cooperhewitt.org.