2020's medical waste may one day be in a museum

In a global pandemic, the paraphernalia of medicine takes on a sobering significance, writes Nathalie Viruly

15 November 2020 - 00:02 By Nathalie Viruly
Damien Hirst's 'Waste Twice'.
Damien Hirst's 'Waste Twice'.
Image: Supplied

As a curator, and possibly because I am a Pisces, I am drawn to objects.

As a child, I'd make memory boxes: ticket stubs and letters to my dead hamster. I recently found a box of sawdust I'd kept from a tree that was axed in my childhood garden.

In adulthood, I've become obsessed with the Milnerton Market. Bric-à-Brac, through and through. And now in corona-lockdown, I find myself surrounded by stuff and thinking about it endlessly.

I've always understood the world through its objects and attached a level of sentiment to ephemera. And so, when I became a birth doula I found myself drawn to the objects of medicine. Gloves, aprons, gauze. Stainless steel objects referred to only in jargon. I would often wonder about their origin and use. Where would they end up? Who they pricked or held and if those people were okay?

While attending births, I would watch as midwives unfolded "birth packs" and lay out an inventory of sterilised "things" on green crepe paper.

So many materials are used to welcome life. Latex-glove-clad hands often touch babies before the bare hands of their mothers. I often think about that and how quickly many of these materials are disposed of. For the reusable few, gowns, sheets and towels, I'm sure they are washed past boiling point, and their fibres are quickly sanitised of the stories that were moments ago embedded within.

I sometimes wish there was a museum for these objects — all of them, at each stage and significance. This is what Damien Hirst sort of achieved in his sculptures Waste and I'll Love you Forever (both 1994).

Both sculptures include/are receptacles filled with disposable medical waste, including personal protective equipment (PPE), and in a sense become tombs of people's traumas and medical triumphs. And while Hirst reaches to grander narratives about love and cures, these objects alone have social lives — stories of those who wore them and those who were tended.

While I write and reflect on this growing pandemic, I think about PPE. The stuff I learnt about attending births, now so closely affiliated with sickness and death. What becomes clear is that there are many ways events such as this will be remembered. For many of us, its legacy will be inter-generational. And deeply personal. Some will remember it in their stomachs, while others will remember it in the loss of love ones, a fever, career change or banana bread at home.

Home being the key space. But for some, the lines between personal and professional blend. A hospital, after all, lies somewhere between a home and an institution and its hours are filled with many disposables. Despite how we each remember, collectively we will not forget.

Writer Nathalie Viruly.
Writer Nathalie Viruly.
Image: Supplied

There will be memorials for those lost and moments of silence. The experience is metamorphic.

With time, historians and curators will need to make sense and story of all of this — converting this present-past into something tangible and meaningful. Part of that will be through the oral history of essential workers, as it must. But what about their tools laced with traces of distress and heroism? Not those of home but those of the essential workers. The objects at the epicentre of survival.

In the days following 9/11, historians collected rubble and pieces of paper that feathered down, knowing that these would be part of this history. But what do we do when the battleground is a hospital desperate for protection? What can be safely conserved from the frontlines of Covid-19? Medical workers' stories will stand true, but there will always be an eerie void for those of us who never physically interact with the work of coronavirus.

I'm not suggesting we collect biohazardous waste by the bucket, liberating virus particles, for a potential exhibition. But I'm intrigued by the alternative narrative of a pandemic and the small creations that mean life and death. Will they feature in museums given their eyewitness account? Or will selfies from home and Zoom screenshots be our photographs? Empty streets and DIY. Will e-mails and journals be our documents?

Perhaps the answer lies in the intangible for that is what Covid demands of us. The virtual. The data clouds lingering. Coded things. And as a Pisces, that's all a little unsettling for me.

• Nathalie Viruly is a freelance writer, birth doula and graduate curatorial student.