This spray painted message on shipping containers at Thompson’s Point in Portland serves as a reminder that the community will rise again after the COVID-19 pandemic. A University of Southern Maine professor is collecting images of signs posted during the pandemic for an online exhibit and for future generations to use in their studies of this time. Courtesy / Libby Bischof

PORTLAND — A University of Southern Maine professor is working to ensure that community support exhibited via signs during the coronavius pandemic is archived for future students of history.

Signs outside the Barron Center in Portland highlight healthcare workers’ role in keeping the public safe throughout the health crisis. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Libby Bischof, a history professor and director of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at USM is creating an online exhibit, “Signs of the Times: Documenting Covid-19 Signs in Southern Maine.”

She and her team are taking submissions from the public.

“This was a personal project of mine. As a teaching historian and especially as a visual historian, I am often looking for images from a particular time period to show students what the time was like,” Bischof said. “As a historian, I was thinking what am I going to want in 20 years when I am teaching about this period.”

Many of the 200 photographs in the archive are signs found on lawns, along roads and posted in windows and at schools, stores, parks, churches and other places of worship.

Bischof said she wanted to capture the signs before they were taken down because they “give a good feel of what it was like to live in southern Maine” during the pandemic.

 “Signs are so ephemeral. They are changing all the time,” Bischof said.

“This project gives us something to look back on and documents the resiliency of our local communities,” said Jessica Hovey, a USM library specialist helping Bischof with the project. “Many of the signs I have come across are hopeful. There are a lot of community members in our neighborhood who are creating signage to rally for essential workers or encourage those who are sharing in the feeling of isolation at home. The general tone is that ‘we are going to get through this together,’ even at a distance.”

Many churches, include the West Gorham Union Church, have suspended in person services until it is safe to do so again. Courtesy / Libby Bischof

Bischof said she has been struck by the positivity of the signs, like the one at the West Gorham Union Church on Ossippee Trail that said church services are “suspended til we can hug” and the shipping containers at Thompson’s Point in Portland bearing the spray-painted message, “Resurgam.”

Wendy Chapkis, a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at USM, has been helping to capture images around the area.

“One of the things I have noticed is the number of homemade signs thanking not only medical personnel but also postal carriers and UPS/FedEx delivery people, grocery store workers, and even neighbors who are helping keep one another safe by wearing masks. Very heartening,” she said.

“I have also been documenting the signs local businesses have created to keep their customers and clients informed. And, perhaps most sobering and powerful to me, are the signs that ask what it means to ‘shelter in place’ when you have no shelter. Like many residents of Portland, I am acutely aware of unhoused people in this time of crisis.”

The signs included so far, Bischof said, will help future students understand historical empathy and how people felt during the coronavirus pandemic.

“(Many) show the way people celebrated even though they can’t in person. The graduation signs are really neat and there are school staff appreciation signs up in front of teachers’ houses,” she said.

Bischof said submissions must include the date the photo was taken, where it was taken and who took it. She reminds people to not go out of their way to capture the images.

“We are still under a stay at home order, so don’t go driving around, getting out of your car just to take a picture,” she said.

Individuals who have a photo they would like to contribute can do so by emailing Bischof at [email protected]

Bischof intends to keep archiving photos of signs throughout the year, at least through the four phases Gov. Janet Mills has laid out to reopen Maine’s economy.

 

Many of the signs across southern Maine that USM Professor Libby Brischof wants to chronicle express appreciation for teachers and honor 2020 graduates, such as these signs outside Deering High School. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Residents all across the Portland, including those who live in this Ocean Avenue home, have placed signs on the lawns thanking people during this coronavirus pandemic. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Signs with inspirational and kind messages like this one on the corner of Ocean Street and Broad Cove in Cape Elizabeth, have been popping up all across southern Maine. Courtesy / Monica McMillan

The Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church on Main Street has no shortage of handmade inspiration signs for passersby to enjoy Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

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