VIU students exhibit the “Forgotten Flu”

The exhibit focuses on how Nanaimo was affected by the catastrophe.

The Spanish Flu exhibit team. (Vancouver Island University)
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VIU History students had the opportunity to share their skills to a broader audience this winter, partnering with Nanaimo Museum to create a local exhibit.

Dr. Katharine Rollwagen’s Public History class, an upper-level history course at Vancouver Island University, pulled their skills and knowledge together to undertake the project. The result of their work is an exhibit for the museum’s Community Gallery on the effects of the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic. The Spanish Flu, a strain of the H1N1 influenza virus, infected an estimated 500 million people around the world, reaching even remote locations such as the pacific island and the arctic circle, and predominantly killing previously healthy young adults. The spread of the virus was exacerbated by massive troop movements at the end of World War I, and the virus became one of the deadliest flu outbreaks in human history.

Coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of the pandemic that swept across the world, the exhibit focuses on how Nanaimo was affected by the catastrophe.

Students worked with Nanaimo Community Archives to collect personal stories and historical facts to create the exhibit, bringing to light a time in Nanaimo’s history often overshadowed by World War I. The pandemic forced the closure of schools and theatres, pushed hospitals to capacity, and the death count was in the dozens within a month.

For Maggie Acorn, a fourth-year History student, the project was a way to work out the parts of the story that builds off of just simple statistics.

“Because it was a community-based project,” Acorn said, “we got to leave the classroom and the library to do hands-on research, working with different organizations and looking at artifacts.”

The project gave Acorn and fellow students the chance to work with different organizations to combine artifacts and records into the final project and properly flesh out the story of the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic.

“Everyone had their own individual piece of the puzzle,” Acorn said, “and when you put all the pieces together, we realized how much we’d done.”

For museum curator and VIU graduate Aimee Greenaway, the partnership was a way to help expose students to future paths in the field they’re studying. The partnership is a first for the museum, but Greenaway is impressed with the results.

“To be able to work directly with the students was a really great experience,” Greenway said. “We were able to share information about how we put together exhibits and some tricks of the trade to add to the research skills they are learning.”

The exhibit runs until February 15, 2019.