The Occupy Wall Street protests are already making for a historical movement — and museums aren't about to let that moment slip away from them. Major historical institutions including the New-York Historical Society and the Smithsonian Museum of American History have been sending representatives to the protests to collect ephemera for preservation, assembling the building blocks for future exhibitions on the movement's impact.
Historical Society staffers have been gathering materials from Zuccotti Park for the past two weeks, scooping up a packing box's worth of flyers and posters, according to Jean Aston, the institution's library director and executive vice president. She said they hope to obtain examples of the artwork on display at the protests as well.
It's hardly the first time that the society has sourced primary-source material from political events as they happen, according to Aston: the museum has 23 floors of stacks holding "thousands and thousands of photographs and ephemera and broadsides, going all the way back to the 18th century," she said. "Most ephemeral events having to do with the city are worth saving. 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 urban variety and culture."
The Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has also taken notice, though a spokesperson did not yet have many details because their collecting process has only just started. "It's really the beginning of things," museum representative Valeska Hilbig said. "We haven't had a chance to take the long view yet." The Smithsonian has mostly collected handmade posters and political items specifically related to the protests themselves, she added, from both Occupy Wall Street in New York and Occupy D.C. in the nation's capital.
"This is part of the museum's long tradition of documenting how Americans participate in the life of the nation," the Smithsonian said in a statement.
Bill Dobbs, who works with the press relations team at the OWS protests and has been a familiar face in lower Manhattan since the protests started on September 17, noticed a staff member from the New York Historical Society while he was at the press table a couple of weeks ago. He said that he handed over some press sign-in sheets, as well as leaflets that he was holding. "The New-York Historical Society are New York City's attic, and this is a great way to grab material while it's fresh," he told ARTINFO.
Historian and Columbia University professor Kenneth T. Jackson — who served as the president of the society between 2001 and 2004 — agreed. He noted that the Occupy protests may or may not prove to be a significant movement in the long view of history, but by the time scholars know for sure it will be too late to collect materials. The flyers, posters, and artwork that is on view today will be gone a week from now (if not tomorrow), so a decision to collect has to be made early.
"When in doubt, I'd say collect," he said. "It may turn out that in the long run this Occupy Wall Street thing will fizzle and be of no significance or very little significance in history, but on the other hand, it could go the other way — it could be a world-wide movement." He added that, as president of the society in 2001, it was his decision to collect 9/11 materials "while the fire still raged." Many people thought that the action was inappropriate at the time, but looking back he wishes that he had been more aggressive.
As a museum, he said, "Your job is not to make the judgment about whether somebody wants to look at it [now] but whether it might be useful to a historian in the future."