‘People Are Unaware of Their History’: Why Museums Are Collecting Artifacts From the Black Lives Matter Protests as They’re Happening

Museums are reacting quickly to protests across the country.

Protesters hold up signs during a
Protesters hold up signs during a "Black Lives Matter" protest in front of Borough Hall on June 8, 2020, in New York City. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images.

As the world watches protests continue to unfold in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, museum leaders are paying close attention too.

Homemade signs, masks, and tear gas canisters have become important markers of these historical events that could someday find their way into museum collections.

“We’ve collected several flyers, protest signs with slogans like ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director at the New-York Historical Society, told Artnet News in an email.

The museum’s “History Responds” initiative, which was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, recently mobilized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by accessioning everything from homemade hand sanitizer to jigsaw puzzles. Now, as protesters take to the streets of New York, the museum is reaching out to its network of photographers with an eye toward acquiring images documenting the protests.

Protesters demonstrate at the Ferguson Police Department on May 31, 2020 in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images.

Protesters demonstrate at the Ferguson Police Department on May 31, 2020 in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images.

Handmade signs are uniquely suited to telling individual stories connected to historical events. “The artifact actually stands as a metaphor,” Aaron Bryant, curator of photography and visual culture and contemporary collecting at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Artnet News. “In many ways, it becomes a portal by which we can connect our visitors with the story we are trying to tell.”

Though rapid collecting is not a new phenomenon—London’s Victoria & Albert Museum acquired the pink pussy hat after the 2017 Women’s March and the National Museum of African American History and Culture owns artifacts from the 2014 protests over the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—recent events have forced museums around the world to be unusually responsive.

“It’s rare to be so aware of a significant moment when you’re living through it, but this is a season of vast change,” Peggy Monahan, the director of content development at the Oakland Museum of California, told Artnet News in an email. “Starting with the pandemic, we’ve been having conversations among the curators and exhibit developers about what objects and ephemera we should bring into our collections to enable us to tell the stories of this moment.”

Members of the DC National Guard patrol outside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, after days of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd occurred throughout the city. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Members of the DC National Guard patrol outside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on June 3, 2020. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Over the last weekend of May, the Museum of the City of New York’s #CovidStoriesNYC hashtag, introduced the previous month to help guide efforts to shape a coronavirus collection, filled up with images of protests around the city. “It makes sense with how COVID has played out in communities of black and brown people of color in a much higher rate than it has elsewhere in the city,” Lindsay Turley, the museum’s vice president of collections, told Artnet News.

The museum has issued a call asking people to share these images instead under its #ActivistNY hashtag, which was introduced a few years ago as part of its rotating “Activist New York” exhibition that highlights social movements in the city’s history, from early struggles for religious tolerance, to labor unionizations, to the AIDS crisis, and beyond.

“I expect the images that we solicit through the Instagram campaign will help us develop a strategy to acquire physical items,” Turley said, noting that with the museum still on lockdown, curators cannot currently accept objects.

At the Museum of African American History, Bryant is reaching out to a network of activist contacts. “I usually look for things that come from donors—a gas mask that might have been worn in Ferguson or a protest sign they carried in Baltimore with demonstrations over Freddie Gray. They have a story that they can tell about the object, and that’s important,” he said.

Tear gas reigns down on a woman standing with her arms raised in the street after a demonstration over the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Tear gas reigns down on a woman standing with her arms raised in the street after a demonstration over the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

“Ephemeral moments are tricky to collect, because not only do we look for images and mementos, but also the stories and records of the people they came from, and what these objects meant to them,” Monahan said. “That additional information is critical, because these objects anchor these deeper stories.”

Collecting contemporary protests artifacts will also help museums remind viewers of the nation’s history, and how the demonstrations and riots unfolding today are linked to the past.

“The items we’re collecting join a collection which documents racism, civil unrest, and collective action throughout American history,” said Hofer. “One of the most powerful artifacts in our museum collection is a draft wheel from the conscription lottery that touched off the racially-charged Draft Riots of July 1863—the worst urban riots in American history.”

Placard from the August 28, 1963, March on Washington reading "WE DEMAND AN END TO POLICE BRUTALITY NOW." Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

Placard from the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

When the African American museum opened its first temporary exhibition, “More Than a Picture,” in 2017, its centerpiece was a placard from the August 28, 1963, march on Washington. The sign, which reads “WE DEMAND AN END TO POLICE BRUTALITY NOW,” is sadly just as timely now, more than 55 years later.

“What we do as historians is place current events within a historical context and history within a contemporary context,” said Bryant. “People are unaware of their history, but it’s really important—history gives us a blueprint.”


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