Museums rush to collect artefacts from the BLM protests as they’re happening

Museums set out to preserve artefacts that represent 2020’s BLM protests, recording history in real time.

The tragic killing of George Floyd has brought about an incredibly transformative period in American history that is guaranteed to be studied by historians for years to come. As the ongoing civil rights uprisings encourage nationwide institutions to respond with urgency, dozens of museums – which typically have little involvement in ‘current’ events (obviously) – are now racing to contextualise and chronicle history, right at the moment it’s being made.

Aaron Bryant is at the forefront of this unique preservation process. A curator of visual culture, photography, and contemporary history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), he is leading what’s being referred to as a ‘rapid-response collecting initiative.’ Bryant’s goal is to secure the stories, images, and objects that will provide the public (as well as historians) with an opportunity to one day understand the tumultuous time we’re experiencing at present.

Items of interest include placards, tear gas canisters, mobile phone footage, and original art, with possibilities for their use ranging from online exhibitions to round-table discussions.

‘History isn’t just about keeping records of random events,’ he says. ‘It’s really about documenting and evaluating the evolution of human progress and our humanity. This moment would be a part of that story.’

Asking protestors to keep physical objects such as signs, as well as digitally upload protest-related audio recordings, videos, and pictures, Bryant has begun making t-shirts and artwork. He aims to donate the proceeds to various movements and charities supporting the cause.

‘We could be collecting brushes, t-shirts, sneakers anything to help us tell this story, it could be anything that has value to history. What’s important is that object becomes a portal to memory,’ he adds.

The Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) in George Floyd’s hometown is also getting involved. Deploying social media to collect submissions, the ‘preserve culture’ hashtag is acting as a hub for information about user’s communities.

‘It’s rare to be so aware of a significant moment when you’re living through it,’ says HMAAC director, Peggy Monahan. ‘But this is a season of vast change.’

Protesters hold up signs during a

This crucial approach for museums is essential because it allows historically marginalised voices to form the narrative of the demonstrations. No longer is it acceptable for historical moments to be told only from the perspective of white people and Bryant definitely has the future in mind by striving to document the voices of black people that are too frequently ignored or not often heard.

‘The fuller racial context is in demand and, to me, the protests and unrest feel like history repeating itself,’ says Bryant. ‘It is, however, giving the nation a prime opportunity for honest conversations that I truly believe can help it evolve.’ Gathering contemporary artefacts from protests will, in addition, help to remind us of America’s history, and how the riots and demonstrations that have unfolded in recent weeks are connected to the past. Listen here for more.

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