Today's crisis, tomorrow's history

Not since the Spanish flu has Australia experienced a health crisis as catastrophic as COVID-19. The first half of 2020 has brought a united effort in Australia to minimise the impact of the pandemic; an effort that has seen Australia emerge as a world leader in this global disaster.

While some of us who have been working from kitchen tables and lounge rooms start planning our return to workplaces, many colleagues in the health sector have been on the front line of the pandemic working in hospitals, clinics and adapting to telehealth technologies. And as we settle into our new normal, we reflect on the last few months and make note of how this time has profoundly affected us, both professionally and personally.


In university and cultural collections throughout Australia, the impact of the Spanish flu is documented through images and detailed collections of policies and newspaper articles. When looking at coverage of the current situation, the similarities are clear. On the National Museum of Australia’s website, a photograph of health workers in 1919 shows protective measures that are still being used today.

But there are many differences as well. So different to the Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago is the presence of social media. Our ability to share our experiences of lockdown has sparked great humour and creativity; Zoom meetings have seen spontaneous inclusions of our families and pets. Although socially distanced, we’ve been able to stay connected in ways we’ve never really seen before.

We have, in our professional capacities, been addressing this crisis by creating a virtual campus, supporting our researchers and participating in and leading broader debates on health and wellbeing in the community – activities that may mark a turning point in university education and research for future generations.

Great innovation comes out of adversity. This has been the case during pandemics and conflicts throughout history, and it’s unsurprising that we have seen the same during this moment in time.

Then: 1919

Now: Ventilation hood designed by University of Melbourne and Western Health intensive care physician, Forbes McGain (on the right) and other researchers, led by Professor Jason Monty.

World War I mask

THEN: During World War 1, the University of Melbourne developed a gas mask for use in the trenches.

UniMelb Mas

NOW: During COVID-19, the University of Melbourne produced 3D printed face masks. Dr Clara Moore of Royal Melbourne Hospital with a University of Melbourne 3D printed face shield.

Wartime ingenuity

THEN: Wartime ingenuity. Captain Gordon Carlyle Marshall (1913–1985), a prisoner of war on Ambon Marshall, fashioned some dentures from scrap aluminium.

Soap Teeth

NOW: Soap teeth. During the remote learning period, BOH 3 student Thuy Le is maintaining clinical dental hand skills and dexterity by shaping teeth using soap.


It won’t be long before we look back at this time as a pivotal moment in international and Australian history. We need to consider how we want these stories told to future generations. How has this pandemic transformed our lives? And how can we document this for future generations?

The Faculty Museums have been busy collecting material that will record the response to the COVID-19 pandemic from our community of students, staff, researchers and colleagues in the health sector.


We would love to get your help documenting this time so we can to share with our future generations. We’re exploring questions like:

  • How were we leaders?
  • How were we innovative and adaptive?
  • How did we deal with anxiety and uncertainty?
  • How did we come together as a community?


Before the lockdown, and in the wake of the deadly summer bushfires, there was a sense of foreboding. Once lockdown began, many of us were required to work from home and limit our movements throughout the community.

Do you have any items that might help us document this time? We’re particularly interested in:

  • records of event cancellations (or photographs of limited attendance)
  • photographs or advertisements
  • posters
  • videos or web seminars
  • articles
  • social media posts
  • art works
  • objects like masks and PPE
  • evidence of changes to the way we work and study.

We look forward to hearing which items, thoughts and discoveries you believe should be part of the collection.

Find out more about how to make a contribution.

By Dr Jacqueline Healy (BA (HONS) 1977, MBA 1983, PHD 2006)