You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Smithsonian museum collects Occupy Wall Street memorabilia

Cultural timepieces or archival ephemera?

- - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Well, that didn't take long.

Early in October, staffers from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History went through the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York's Zucotti Park collecting hand-made posters and other material to build up a record of the embryonic movement in case the protesters end up in the history books — and not just in jail for unlawful assembly and messing up public spaces.

As the Occupy protest widened to other cities, so did the museum's search. But museum officials declined to go into detail about what was being collected and from where.

Valeska M. Hilbig, deputy director of public affairs, referred to a museum statement that puts the initiative in the context of similar recent efforts. “The protests are still ongoing, and things are still unfolding,” Ms. Hilbig told The Washington Times. “Historians like to take the long view and see how things play out. They wouldn't feel comfortable to discuss it until they have had a chance to get the historic perspective.”

The museum said there were no plans to put the material collected on exhibition. But it turns out collecting Occupy Wall Street posters and the like is in vogue. Artinfo, a leading art magazine, reported on Tuesday that the New York Historical Society and what it called “major historical institutions” have also been in search of Occupy Wall Street ephemera.

Artinfo quoted Jean Aston, the Historical Society's librarian and executive vice president as saying, “These items document a particular moment in time, which may become significant in the future. If the events fizzle, the objects are still important documents of a certain variety and culture.”

The National Museum of American History has been hoarding such documents and artifacts from contemporary events for years as part of its “long tradition of documenting how Americans participate in the life of the nation,” says an official museum statement. “Many of these materials are ephemeral and if not collected immediately are lost to the historical record.”

The museum statement said recent “acquisitions” included materials from the tea party rally of March 2010 - in effect marking its first birthday - and the protests by public employees at the Wisconsin state Capitol last March after Republican Gov. Scott Walker reduced union collective-bargaining rights. Other sources were Glenn Beck's “Restoring Honor” rally and Jon Stewart's “Rally to Restore Sanity,” both held on the Mall.

The declared inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was launched in New York on Sept. 14, was Cairo's Tahrir Square, catalyst of the Egyptian revolution. Early in the Cairo protests, a group of historians and scholars formed a committee to compile a record of the uprising, collecting posters and recording slogan chants and music.

Occupy Wall Street aimed to focus anger against the role of banks and financial institutions in creating the global economic crisis. Police have since cleared the tents and posters festooning trees in Zucotti Square, and similar actions have dispersed derivative occupations in other cities.

The experts' view is that whether the Occupy Wall Street artifacts turn out to be the building bricks of history, or just rubble in the archives, will depend on the future of the movement - if it has one. But successful or not, it's only a matter of time before Occupy Wall Street ephemera show up on eBay.