Beyond COVID-19: 7 Virtual Museum Exhibits That Explore Pandemics

With most museums still closed, digital exhibits offer opportunities to consider outbreaks past and present from a safe distance.

With most museums still closed, digital exhibits offer opportunities to consider outbreaks past and present from a safe distance. While some exhibits remind us that what we’re undergoing now is nothing new, others offer more information on the current COVID-19 crisis.

Mail carrier wearing mask during 1918 flu pandemic
Letter Carrier in New York Wearing Mask.” October 16, 1918. Collection of National Archives & Records Administration. Provided by the Tenement Museum as part of its Beyond Statistics: Living in a Pandemic exhibit.

Beyond Statistics: Living in a Pandemic

This exhibit helps users develop a deeper understanding of public health and disease by exploring how former residents of New York City’s Tenement Museum (which comprises  two former Lower East Side tenements) coped with cholera, tuberculosis, the 1918 flu, and HIV/AIDS. A time line of contagious disease in New York City drives home the message that terms such as flattening the curve have a long history.

COVID-19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness

Albuquerque’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology looks at the history of disease and explores wellness, both with a specific eye to how these topics have affected New Mexico and the entire world. The museum also invites those grappling with COVID-19 to submit stories and images depicting their experiences.

Rosary and other religious objects
Spiritual co-inhabitation in material objects: a Catholic rosary, a figurine of St. Antonio (the patron saint of Lisbon), a Buddha filled with chakra crystals, and a Ganesha-depicting incense holder. Lisbon, Portugal, 2018. Photograph: Eugenia Roussou. Provided by Maxwell Museum of Anthropology as part of its COVID-19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness exhibit.

National Library of Medicine

The National Library of Medicine offers several relevant exhibits, such as Rashes to Research: Scientists and Parents Confront the 1964 Rubella Epidemic and Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America. Photos, illustrations, posters, magazine and newspaper articles, and excerpts from textbooks paint a vivid portrait of death and disease.

Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World

Users can take a virtual tour of the Smithsonian’s physical exhibit or check out the digital exhibit, which examines the causes of pandemics, how to control the spread, and tools to combat disease.

Science Behind the News: Viruses

The New York Hall of Science has created an online exhibit, that, similar to its interactive graphic novel Transmission Gone Viral, breaks down the basics in both English and Spanish: What is a virus? What is COVID-19? How do viruses infect cells?

Illustration of a man with influenza
Influenza patient with cyanosis, blue or purple color in the face caused by fluid in the lungs and lack of oxygen in the blood, 1920.
From Ministry of Health, Great Britain, Report on the Pandemic of Influenza, 1918-19, 1920. The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Philadelphia

In 2019, the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia created an exhibit to educate the public about the effects of the 1918 pandemic on the city. Viewers unable to travel to the museum in person can take a virtual tour. The museum also offers some dynamic digital opportunities to make sense of the 1918 pandemic’s effect on the city. “See the Spread” visually tracks deaths and can be filtered by sex, ethnicity, age group, and immigration generation. “Explore the Pandemic” includes an extensive map of Philadelphia, with superimposed dots to indicate deaths.

Watching Hands: Artists Respond to Keeping Well

In 2011–12, the David J. Sencer Centers for Disease Control Museum, in partnership with Georgia-Pacific Professional, a manufacturer of tissues and paper towels, asked artists to visually convey the importance of handwashing. Available online, the exhibit includes six pieces, along with explanations of the works, videos featuring the artists, and an essay from curator Louise E. Shaw.

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Cressida Hanson

It appears that the link to "Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World" is broken. Otherwise this is a fascinating collection of virtual exhibits relevant to our time.

Posted : Aug 26, 2020 01:37

Matt Enis

Thanks for pointing that out! The link to the digital exhibit is here: and it has been fixed in the story.

Posted : Aug 26, 2020 01:37

Anna Golash

Very helpful article, Mahnaz!

Posted : Aug 26, 2020 02:21



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing