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New UW-Eau Claire history exhibit documents parallels between COVID-19 pandemic and past crises

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior Weston Weisensel helped create a new virtual exhibit that documents major health-related events from early in the 20th century to the current pandemic. The project shows the many parallels between past crises and the current COVID-19 pandemic. It also highlights how these kinds of crises hit rural communities in Wisconsin the hardest. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

Surprised by the controversies around mask mandates, vaccination requirements and other public health-related efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic?

Not if you consider behaviors during past public health crises, says a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire public history research team that has created a virtual exhibit documenting major health-related events from early in the 20th century to the current pandemic.

While COVID-19 has created a public health crisis on a level not seen in more than a century, many aspects of the current pandemic — and reactions to it — reflect patterns seen in the past, say the faculty and student researchers who created the exhibit, titled “The Individual, the Collective, and the Crisis: Public Health in Rural Wisconsin.”

“As we continue to navigate the everyday changes and challenges of the current pandemic, it is important to look at the history of public health crises — not only to see areas where we have advanced, but also to understand how people coped, and what lessons we can learn,” says Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei, an assistant professor of history who is the faculty lead on the project. “Put simply, looking to the past always contributes to a better understanding of our present. It also helps us avoid mistakes made in previous eras, in response to similar problems.”

The research team includes Jiménez Frei; Dr. Maggie Weber, senior lecturer of history; Adler Orr, a public history major from Tree Lakes who also is earning a certificate in legal studies; and Weston Weisensel, a senior from Sun Prairie who is a public history and broadfield social studies major with an emphasis in history. UW-Eau Claire archivist Greg Kocken also collaborated on the project.

Learning from the past

The exhibit features drawings, letters, news stories and other artifacts that show public health officials’ actions during past health-related crises, as well as people’s reactions to those recommendations. It also addresses topics like mental health, government distrust and poverty, all things that directly relate to what is happening now in communities across the country, Weisensel says.

From pushback on mask mandates during the 1918 flu pandemic to questioning the validity of science during the Cold War, there are plenty of parallels to what we are seeing during the current COVID-19 pandemic, Weisensel says.

Jiménez Frei agrees, adding that the ongoing sharing of misinformation and the resistance to mask wearing, vaccines and other public health measures are like responses to efforts to halt a smallpox epidemic in Milwaukee in 1894, and during the 1918 flu pandemic.

“Looking back, the fact that the 1918 pandemic was ignored by most governments around the world, including the U.S., was a mistake,” Jiménez Frei says of the flu that killed 675,000 people in the U.S. “Ignoring a highly contagious virus does not make it go away, and only harms society. The same can be said of resistance to the smallpox vaccine, or to wearing masks during the 1918 pandemic. These were decisions that, through the lens of history, we can see as having a clear, negative effect on individual health, public health and society as a whole.”

The exhibit also reflects a cultural and political shift during the 20th century from a focus on collective public health to the individual, a shift that was especially detrimental to rural communities in Wisconsin.

Rural communities have confronted public health crises by seeking resources and support within their communities rather than from officials, Jiménez Frei says. This, alongside the rise in misinformation, has led to eroding trust in public health officials and science among those rural populations, she says.          

Focusing on rural populations

Researchers know that rural and minority populations are consistently the hardest hit by public health crises, Jiménez Frei says.

For example, as protesters resisted quarantines and a vaccine to control smallpox in turn-of the-century Milwaukee, Indigenous populations in rural Wisconsin continued to suffer the ravages of the same disease. And, while hundreds of thousands of people died in the U.S. during the flu pandemic, the hardest hit were poor communities, especially minority groups who lacked access to affordable health care, Jiménez Frei says.

Those rural areas are again being hit hard by COVID-19, which earlier this year surpassed the 1918 flu to become the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history.

Yet less is known about these lived experiences in rural communities, something the research team hopes to amend through their new exhibit, Jiménez Frei says.

“All too often, urban stories dominate historical narratives, but this exhibit looks to show a new perspective,” Jiménez Frei says. “It helps to recapture a sense of community and the importance of collective public health by looking back at how rural communities either came together to help each other or looked the other way during particular crises. This has the potential to help us navigate our current situation, but also to strengthen society as a whole.”

Their exhibit makes sure the voices of people living in rural areas of Wisconsin are heard by including histories of Indigenous groups, the disabled, immigrants, Latinx communities, farmers and other populations in rural areas, Jiménez Frei says.

“Overall, this exhibit aims to illuminate silenced or overlooked histories of rural populations during public health crises from the early 20th century to the present,” Jiménez Frei says. “In the process, it expands understandings of what constitutes a crisis of public health to include not just pandemics, but also mental health crises, drug addiction, poverty, racism and a lack of access to health care.”

With that goal in mind, the exhibit includes events like the farm crisis of the 1980s and the opioid crisis.

“We wanted to bring to light events that either at the time, and especially today, weren’t being considered a health crisis, like the mental health of farmers,” Weisensel says.

Student learning opportunity

While the exhibit is of value to anyone who accesses it, the work that went into researching and creating it are especially meaningful to the two students on the project team. Their work strengthened the exhibit and helped prepare the Blugolds to lead future public history projects, Jiménez Frei says.

“Projects like this are vital to provide public history students hands-on experiences, giving them the ability to apply their knowledge to clear projects in the field of public history,” Jiménez Frei says. “The exhibit was a substantial amount of work and original research for the students.”

Weisensel, who describes the projects as “a great learning opportunity,” says the research was especially interesting because it focused on topics that he knew little about. Learning about past events is helping him reframe his thinking about behaviors he sees during the current pandemic.

He hopes the exhibit will do the same for others who access it.

“I hope people take away how much improvement our health care system needs, not only in rural areas but across the board,” Weisensel says. “I also hope they can make the connections to the present day, be it from their experiences with COVID-19 or other parts of their lives.”

Orr and Weisensel presented their work on the project during the Northern Great Plains History Conference this fall.

Opportunities to engage in and present real-world research are among the reasons he wanted to study history at UW-Eau Claire, Weisensel says.

“I’ve always been interested in the past, people and their experiences,” Weisensel says. “What I really enjoy about public history is that it takes learning and teaching history outside of a classroom, which always provides a more meaningful connection and understanding of the past.”

Weisensel now is an intern with the Journal of the Plague Year, an online rapid-response archive documenting the effects of COVID-19 around the world. The project is hosted by the University of Arizona but includes partners across the globe, including UW-Eau Claire.

Weisensel is curating new submissions to the archive and working on an exhibit documenting mental health during the pandemic. He says the work he did on the UW-Eau Claire summer project helped prepare him to be successful in his current internship.

Making the project possible

“The Individual, the Collective, and the Crisis: Public Health in Rural Wisconsin” exhibit is possible thanks to UW-Eau Claire alumna Mary Hilfiker, whose recently established scholarship through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation helped fund Orr’s and Weisensel’s summer research positions. The two Blugolds were the first recipients of the Hilfiker Scholarship, which supports undergraduate research in the history department.

“I have always had an interest in history, starting in high school and through my work at UWEC,” Hilfiker says of her inspiration for creating the scholarship. “It has remained a passion of mine as I have explored historical sites such as the Greater Zimbabwe ruins or the failed Franklin explorations of the Arctic.

“However, local history can be just as interesting and exciting, and it is your history. We cannot succeed in the future if we do not understand our past.”

These kinds of real-world learning experiences better prepare students to be successful when they graduate to enter the field, says Jiménez Frei, adding that she and other history faculty are grateful to Hilfiker for creating the scholarship that funded this project and will contribute to future undergraduate research projects.

A grant from the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University also provided a student intern from Villanova who served on the exhibit team.

Next steps

Jiménez Frei is working with Dr. Elena Casey, assistant professor of languages, to expand access to the virtual exhibit by creating a mirror site in Spanish. Students in Casey’s “Spanish for Health Professions” class are working to translate the site into Spanish as part of their fall 2021 coursework.

“I am grateful to be able to broaden the reach of those who can view, utilize and learn from the exhibit, and to further strengthen the collaborative nature of the project by including students and faculty in languages,” Jiménez Frei says.

The Spanish version of the site, which will be linked on the home page of the exhibit, will be published by the end of the fall semester.

Jiménez Frei hopes the Blugold-created exhibit will be used by K-12 teachers in their classroom activities and be visited by many members of the public. Designing the project as a digital exhibit expands access to anyone with an internet connection, no matter their location, she says.

“I hope those who view the exhibit will walk away with an understanding that many of the challenges we are currently facing in the COVID-19 pandemic are similar to challenges faced in public health crises past, and that coming together as a collective to overcome these challenges benefits us all in the end,” Jiménez Frei says.