Archives Exhibit Showcases Past Reponses to Deadly Disease

by Olivia Yepez

4 mins read

No student who has been in school over the past two years is a stranger to the online classes, mask mandates, social distancing and vaccine campaigns which have come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What the fall exhibit at Drew University’s Methodist Archives attempts to show is that this is not the first time that society has undergone and responded to a deadly disease over the course of history.

The exhibit, “Piety and Plague: Communal Responses to Epidemics,” was curated by Becca Safi (’22) and Methodist Archives Manager of Special Collections Candace Reilly over the course of the summer and officially opened on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

“History always repeats itself,” Safi said, repeating an old adage which she felt captured some of her big goals with the exhibit. While the curation shows past responses to epidemics, plagues and pandemics through archival materials, Safi hopes that visitors will be able to draw parallels between the materials in the cases and current-day events.

According to Safi, creating the exhibit was her first curation job and co-curator Reilly played a major role in helping her collect materials to later go in the specially-made display cases for the exhibit. Safi and Reilly originally thought of the idea for the display in spring 2021 and got down to business curating the materials which would be part of the exhibit over the course of the summer.

Reilly said that she and Safi spent many hours in the stacks of Drew’s special collections and the General Commission on Archives and History for the United Methodist Church (GCAH) pulling archival content for their project. By late August, curation was completed and the exhibit was fully installed and ready for viewing.

The exhibit is divided by cases dedicated to medical responses and religious responses to disease, as well as fears and anxieties which surfaced in connection with them. Safi said the display case dedicated to herbal remedies, one mode of medical response, was one of her favorites in the exhibit.

“It was interesting to see how a bunch of different plants that you normally wouldn’t even think of using were used for remedies,” she said, pointing out that some Native American groups used the pitcher plant to ease the onset and pain of smallpox sores.

Both Safi and Reilly said the exhibit has been seeing steady visits from members of the Drew community and outside visitors. Some professors on campus have even made a short field trip to the Methodist Archives for a tour of the “Piety and Plague” exhibit as part of their curriculum for the semester.

Safi encouraged visitors from in- and outside of Drew to investigate further into display topics they might be interested in by taking time to look through the school’s extensive collections which are open to the public.The exhibit will be available for viewing until Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021 in the Drew University Methodist Archives, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit also has a website which interested parties can find at  

Image courtesy of Olivia Yepez

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