By Natalia Magnani (UiT The Arctic University of Norway), Matthew Magnani (Harvard University), Anatolijs Venovcevs (UiT The Arctic University of Norway), and Stein Farstadvoll (UiT The Arctic University of Norway)

Disruptive events are memorialized in oral histories and curated things. Other memories exist in artifacts left behind. But what if one studies the materials of crisis as they are removed, replaced, altered, and degraded over the course of an event? Observing these changes suggests the social and physical processes that shape what is remembered. As standardized state and corporate representations (e.g., mass-produced signage) meant to guide responses to COVID-19 overwhelm local variation in coping strategies (e.g., improvised spatial barriers), a study of material transformation illuminates the ephemeral plurality of human response to uncertainty. Institutionalized materials inform memory through their relative abundance, obscuring daily acts that might deviate from government policies. Yet health crises are negotiated in the spaces between legislation and local action. We argue that diachronic perspectives allow us to understand these intersections and critically approach material distortions of social memory.

In the city of Tromsø (N. Sámi: Romsa), on the Arctic island of Tromsøya (Romssasuolu), in Norway, a group of anthropologists and contemporary archaeologists studied the shifting materiality of social distancing in public and commercial spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Norwegian regulations encouraged reduced gathering sizes and business operation, while permitting local movement. Our methodology, rooted in social distancing, was continuously adapted to changing disease-prevention guidelines and informal norms. With observations privileging authors’ daily routines over two months from March to May 2020, we combined geolocated photologs of signs, barriers, and discarded personal protective equipment. The research mapped fleeting aspects of the pandemic and their replacement with the heavy material memory of state mandate. While informal materials structured pandemic practice—the ways that people negotiated distance and contact in public spaces—more numerous, regular markers of government and corporate policy may come to shape memory of how the virus was experienced. Following material transformations challenges these representations, showing that local action was continuously improvised in dialogue with, but often diverging from, national guidelines.

Improvised barriers blocking seats at a café in Jekta Storsenter, Tromsø. (Courtesy of authors)

The crisis began in the absence of any visible markers and was closely followed by urgently devised materials. On March 11, 2020, the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services announced a call to collective action against the novel coronavirus. Nationwide closings of schools, select businesses, and public gatherings were effective from the end of the day on March 12. That evening, before the signs and barriers that would come to structure socially distanced space, supermarkets crowded as people stocked up in anticipation of isolation. The absence of signage over the first days also reflected the relative closeness of people—there were no space markers at registers, no posters regulating consumer behavior. Instead, individual attempts to keep distance were random and varied. In the days that followed, signs went up across the island, hastily written or printed in-shop, indicating closure “due to Corona” or “following the advice of the Norwegian Directorate of Health.” Many businesses that were not legally required to close did so anyway, some referencing their solidarity with the national cause. Those that remained open outlined hygiene measures based on government protocols (distance requisites, coughing into the elbow, tissue use, use of card instead of cash, etc.) To reinforce these practices, construction tape, boxes, and other improvised barriers blocked off registers and seating. People positioned themselves behind lines, avoiding designated seats and zones.

Ad hoc material shifts occurred as initial panic subsided from the end of March through the first weeks of April. Businesses planned for long-term pandemic measures, elaborating on initial signs with more detailed instructions for social distancing, and then increasingly replaced these with standardized national, municipal, and corporate posters. Some local chains reduced available carts and baskets, while others wrapped bread products in plastic, variably limiting contact with touched surfaces. At the same time, some shops presented a public face of social responsibility with the visible use and distribution of protective gloves—advised against by the Norwegian government as contributing to spread, but ubiquitously used and discarded around the city. In late April 2020, when the country began reopening, many of the early signs had been replaced, while gloves degraded in the spring thaw or were cleaned up by municipal services. Construction tape was layered or replaced with mass-produced floor decals.

Floor stickers at a chain hardware store, layered over worn construction tape, guide patrons to keep their distance from one another. (Courtesy of authors)

How will the unfolding pandemic be remembered through this uneven materiality? Memory is inscribed in objects and public space (Connerton 2011), as things themselves interweave through time to structure memory (Olsen 2013). In Tromsø, local objects mediated everyday bodily and spatial negotiations of the pandemic, whereas organizational responses may come to obscure these memories. Artifacts were layered at different temporal scales—transforming from absence, local improvisation, and rapid replacement to longer-lasting remnants memorializing uniform action. The resulting materials of standardized social distancing, without analysis of their development, reinforce national and global representations of the COVID-19 response in Norway as an uncomplicated story of government regulations and corresponding citizen action. Our study shows that residents exceeded health recommendations in some cases, and in others contradicted them. Yet centralized representations flood the memory of ephemeral events, overshadowing such variability of local responses. In other words, it was not state and corporate posters and barriers that exclusively shaped behavior. Individual practice routinized to socially distanced norms in dialogue with continuously shifting materials.

The case of the coronavirus in Norway has broader implications for understanding political infrastructures and representations that shape and overwhelm the legacies of disruptive events. While individual and collective routines change as they are informed by improvised solutions, the influx of standardized materials bias representation of pandemic response as national response. In reality, these actions are local and negotiated, in dialogue with but diverging from state mandate. A similar study at another site of the global pandemic may find store signs indicating reopening when they are still instructed to be closed and traces of large-scale gatherings in forbidden zones. In a country with minimal regulation, one may encounter the rapid innovation of social distancing across businesses and public areas, signifying personal and community efforts to contain the virus. Material preservation will affect historical reflections, as sheer abundance makes it more likely that future generations will pick up mass-produced objects over their local iterations.

If we are to understand multiple scales of coping with disruption, and the day-to-day ways that such events are experienced, we must look beyond dominant representations. Material methods, combining social anthropological and archaeological analysis, allow us to capture transitory social processes that may otherwise escape awareness (Magnani and Magnani 2020). The opportunity to directly observe material transformation stands to shape how events are remembered. It is by investigating the physical replacements of memory as they occur that we can look beyond national and global brushstrokes of crisis.

Connerton, Paul. 2011. The Spirit of Mourning: History, Memory and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magnani, Natalia, and Matthew Magnani. 2020. “Material Methods for a Rapid-Response Anthropology.” Social Anthropology.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2013. “Memory.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, edited by Paul Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini, 204–18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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