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Why museums are collecting protest signs
It is critical that we collect so this moment does not get lost
Around the Globe 24 Jun 2020

As black lives matter demonstrations continue around the world, people are taking to the streets to protest the racism embedded in our society with powerful homemade signs. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the catalyst for such activism; however, this is just one of many, many acts of injustice against Black voices and bodies that have happened over centuries.

The signs carried to the protests range from witty and funny to poignant and heart breaking, but they all have one thing in common: They’re strong and have statements against brutality,  injustice and share the anger toward the systemic racism that exists around the world.

Over the past couple of weeks, museum curators have been collecting some of these signs, along with images, and other memorabilia from recent protests in USA.  Particularly from the area surrounding the White House complex. The near two-mile fence became a symbol of resistance as demonstrators have converted it into a makeshift exhibit of protest art during the protests.

The curators from three different Smithsonian museums also surveyed the site of protests that have been taking place in USA outside the White House complex near Lafayette Square. On top of collecting these pieces related to the movement, they spoke with the organizers and protesters about their thoughts.

“Our purpose today was to build relationships with people on the ground to keep the conversation open for potential collecting,” Jason Spear, a Smithsonian spokesperson stated.

Aaron Bryant, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), commented to the New York Times: It is critical that we collect so this moment does not get lost. We talk to people, so we don’t forget their stories. History is happening right before us. […] If we don’t collect this stuff, who knows what happens to it.

When the NMAAHC opened, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch—then the director of the museum—highlighted the museum’s effort to proactively “collect today for tomorrow” 

NMAAHC has partnered with the National Museum of American History and the Anacostia Community Museum, which also had a team of curators at the protest last week.


In Michigan, the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives has asked protestors to donate posters and signs to be part of a permanent exhibit titled “Art of Protest.”

This practice is part of a relatively new initiative implemented by many museums in recent years called “rapid response collecting.”  Built for the fast-paced digital age, rapid response collecting allows museums to acquire and immediately display objects that address questions of social, political, technological, and economic change.

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