“Spanish flu is a thing that happened and people should know about it.”

I conducted four very informal interviews with my partner and three friends. They’ve all seen me discuss this project a bit on social media, but I haven’t really been able to discuss the subject with anyone outside of class, so I was excited to hear their thoughts!

I started off asking them for some words or concepts that they associate with the word “flu.” Their answers fell into two main categories: the physical symptoms and prevention strategies, such as “shot/vaccination,” “death,” “sneezing/coughing,” and “sick;” and modern incarnations of the flu, such as “bird,” “swine,” and “epidemic.” My impression was that they saw the flu as this huge, dangerous abstract, but had no personal connection or other feelings towards it.

I asked if they had heard of the Spanish flu, and to my surprise, they both had. One friend remembered learning about the 1918 epidemic in her high school history class; she went to a Quaker school, so they focused on this epidemic more than WWI. The others had read about it in books. Only my partner could remember the specific book, a YA fictional diary that was part of the Dear America series. I later learned that there are actually several children’s and YA fiction books about the flu epidemic, primarily from the perspectives of young victims in East coast cities.

All had been to museums several times in the last 6 months. Most of their visits focused on socializing with friends and family, although one or two visits happened because of interest the exhibition’s specific subject.

I specifically did not ask whether they would be interested in visiting an exhibition about the Spanish flu. This seems like a really obvious omission, but I have two reasons for it: first, I assumed that their answers would be biased, since they wouldn’t necessarily tell me they’re uninterested in my project. Second, the interpretive direction we take this project in would probably influence their answer. Thus, I asked them to rate their interest on the four main themes the class came up with: commemorating victims, medical heroes, humanitarianism, and vaccines/modern advocacy.

Memorials received the lowest interest, although at least one person was embarrassed about their answer. Medical heroes got a medium level of interest, but the highest interest went toward humanitarian efforts, especially regarding nurses. Vaccinations and advocacy had the most mixed responses, although most ranged from medium to high levels of interest.

I find the embarrassment about low interest in memorials interesting, especially because I have a similar opinion.. This makes sense, if no one has a personal connection to this epidemic that would give them the need to commemorate the victims. Acknowledging those who died is extremely important, but I would be wary about it turning into public mourning, which makes me generally very uncomfortable. Mourning is an extremely private, individual activity for me, and I would not want to force it onto visitors without sufficient warnings.

One friend brought up the possible controversy of focusing on vaccinations and advocacy, which we discussed in class. While I’ve been one of the main proponents (from my perspective, at least) of including public health in the conversation, my friend pointed out the possible political ramifications of actively persuading visitors to get vaccines. She suggested we “educate people about the history of flu so that they understand why it’s important to fight it today” — a similar approach to what we’ve been discussing in class, I think, although not so blatantly stated.

Overall, while I didn’t sense any enthusiastic interest in the topic, I think the friends I surveyed had an open, patient curiosity to the possibilities of interpreting the epidemic. They certainly acknowledged the importance of learning about the epidemic, both as an event in itself and for its impact on how Philadelphia and other cities dealt with and recuperated from it. This blog entry’s title is an exact quotation from my partner that sums up their opinion: that the Spanish flu is a thing that happened and people should know about it.


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