STEM Shoutout: Dr. Devorah Romanek

Maxwell Museum curator creates virtual COVID-19 exhibit 

In response to the global pandemic, UNM’s Maxwell Museum curator Dr. Devorah Romanek has created Covid 19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness, a virtual exhibition dedicated to expanding visitor’s perspectives on the virus through a historical context. 


The exhibit, which can be found here, has had 2,000 visitors so far and is continually adding content in the hopes of informing the public not only about the disease itself, but about broader historical responses to sickness. 


Romanek said she utilized this broad approach in hopes that it will help people feel grounded and inquisitive when looking at sickness and wellness through various perspectives throughout time and geographic space.


The introduction page to virtual COVID-19 exhibition. Romanek dedicated the exhibition to expand visitor’s perspectives on the virus through a historical context. Photo courtesy of Devorah Romanek.

“It helps to have the opportunity to be philosophical, and to know, in the historical sense, that we are not alone in facing a challenge like this, even as this challenge has its singular and unique aspects. And while we are commenting on the current situation with covid-19, there is a lot of information out there for people, so we didn’t think it would be too helpful to just pile on more information to the current situation, but rather to allow people to consider the current moment against a broad background,” Romanek said.


Romanek said she began working on the exhibition the day that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a state of emergency, knowing that the virus would soon reach New Mexico. 


“As curator of exhibits and head of interpretation at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, it is my role to see how the museum responds with its public face to the area we cover. So I knew we would want to respond to this pandemic and address what is happening in real-time in relation to the human experience, to a changing world in a time of crisis,” Romanek said. 


Romanek says the process has been deeply interesting and very busy. 


“It involves reaching out to a very large group of people, lots of communication to gather contributions, I have been talking to people close to home and around the globe– New Mexico and various of the other 50 States, The Navajo Nation, Canada, the UK, France, Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Mexico, Israel, etc. At the same time, I am undertaking some research myself and writing some part of the exhibition,” Romanek said. 


However, creating a virtual exhibition comes with its own unique set of challenges, the biggest one for Romanek being developing a website with limited technical experience on how to do so. This is particularly tricky for her and her graduate student, Gabriel Raab-Faber, but Romanek says they are figuring it out. Romanek says another challenge has also dealt with relying more on visual content and text versus dimensional objects you’d typically see in physical museum spaces. 


Conversely, Romanek says she finds the broader reach the internet can provide rewarding.


“We can potentially reach many more people with an online exhibition, and we can change, update and add content as we go, and that is very different,” Romanek said.


Taking advantage of an online presence, Romanek has incorporated a unique aspect in the exhibition called Your Story, inviting individuals to send in their stories of how they are living through the pandemic. Romanek said she incorporated this to build a sense of community and have visitors feel like a part of the exhibition. Romanek also hopes to archive these stories and to build an understanding for future generations of what people today are going through. 


“I take away from this project that it is more important than ever to try and question and understand what it means to be human and to be part of a community. I also take away, which I do from all my work, that I am really lucky to be able to do the work I do,” Romanek said. 


Do you have a story to share? The exhibit is still seeking and accepting short stories from the public to be featured in the Your Story component of the exhibition which you can email to Romanek at