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Wisconsin Historical Society acquires Madison memorial honoring lives lost due to COVID-19

Ribbons behind church sign.jpg
Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society
A memorial of nearly 9,000 ribbons tied to rail posts, ropes, and other surfaces of the Trinity United Church in Madison, Wis. was recently collected by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Each ribbon represents someone who died from COVID-19 in the state.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a life-changing experience — especially if you’ve gone through loss. In Madison, a memorial was recently collected by the Wisconsin Historical Society of nearly 9,000 ribbons that were tied to rail posts, ropes, and other surfaces located outside of the Trinity United Church. Each ribbon represents someone who died from COVID-19 in the state.

This is one of the latest additions to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection of materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic since its early days. From masks to distancing signage and vaccine vials, they aim to collect history in real time to use the lessons of our past to inform the future.

Wisconsin Historical Society chief curator Estella Chung says they held a series of remote calls with essential workers at the beginning of the pandemic to ask them what would be meaningful to collect for the future.

"We collected scrubs, we collected an impromptu evaluation station, all those impromptu Plexiglas barriers that people were just sort of making on the fly. At the early stage of the pandemic, we collected one that was being used in the hospital," notes Chung.

When the memorial was being disassembled at the church, Chung says the expansion of the ribbons to extra fencing and wire clearly indicated that the group didn't know how long the pandemic would continue — and it highlights the sad reality of the still-rising numbers.

"The 9,000 ribbons had been out in the elements since the start of the pandemic. And you know, we're going into yet another winter, and they were out of space too, which is also a very sort of sad realization," she notes.

Wisconsin Historical Society
This 1-liter bottle held sanitizer and was produced by Yahara Bay Distillery of Madison, Wis. in April, 2020 in response to the global shortage of antiseptic hand sanitizer due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. It was distributed to the Madison City Clerk's office by the Dane County Clerk on April 2, 2020 in preparation for the statewide election that was held on April 7.

Chung says the memorial wasn't just a testament to the painful loss of life, but also the journey of everyone experiencing the pandemic unfold.

The memorial is currently in a conservation process to remove pests out of the ribbons, according to Chung, and its next steps aren't completely clear yet.

"The Wisconsin Historical Society does collect history as it happens. It's something that the society has done since its very early years. One of the complexities of doing that is thinking about what all these things mean to the communities. Sometimes the best thing to do is collect the materials and not rush with the plan," she notes.

Chung says it's too early to tell what we will think about the pandemic in the future. But for her, it's the work of the Society to capture all of the intense realities Wisconsin has been facing since the beginning of the pandemic.

"The pandemic is not yet done, the story is far from over. We don't know what history will tell us," says Chung. "So, we have preserved the memorial because we know it's significant and very meaningful, but we don't know exactly where its place in history will be."

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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