Smithsonian Curators Are Eyeing Signs, Art And Stories To Collect From D.C. Protests "We thought it was most important for us to come down here to make sure that 50, 100, 200 years from now, this moment is not forgotten."
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NPR logo Smithsonian Curators Are Eyeing Signs, Art And Stories To Collect From D.C. Protests

Smithsonian Curators Are Eyeing Signs, Art And Stories To Collect From D.C. Protests

Aaron Bryant, a curator with the NMAAHC, surveys the boards on H Street where the art and posters from the White House fence were moved. Elliot Williams/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Elliot Williams/DCist/WAMU

The National Park Service began its removal of the nearly two-miles of fencing surrounding the "White House complex" on Wednesday. The metal barrier has become a symbol of resistance as demonstrators have converted it into a makeshift exhibit of protest art over the past few days — and now, curators are looking to preserve parts of it.

By 11:30 a.m., a gaggle of reporters stood across from the south end of the Ellipse, filming a large crane that removed the heavy concrete blocks that hold the mesh metal pieces together—thus, beginning a somewhat confusing removal plan by NPS and Secret Service.

On the northern side, along H Street NW, curators from the Smithsonian arrived to begin the process of documenting this moment in history by surveying the protest art, posters, and other ephemera for potential exhibits in the future.

Curators from African American History and Culture Museum, American History Museum, and Anacostia Museum were on the ground, but didn't collect anything just yet. "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, said over email.

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Aaron Bryant, a curator with the African American History and Culture Museum who came down from Baltimore, says the fence and signs around Lafayette Square might one day act as a portal to memory and history, similar to the debris from the Twin Towers preserved after September 11.

"I really do believe that we live history every day of our lives, and so we thought it was most important for us to come down here to make sure that 50, 100, 200 years from now, this moment is not forgotten, these voices aren't forgotten and these stories can be shared for generations," says Bryant. "And the message that's on the signs — we can't forget the message because they represent the voices of the people who helped to shape this history."

Bryant was joined by a small team of curators and photographers from the NMAAHC and Anacostia Community Museum who plan to come out to the fence in the coming days and weeks to collect pieces that could be used in exhibits down the road.

"Today, actually, we're just kind of walking around and getting the lay of the land, to be perfectly honest," Bryant says.

The group declined to share too much about their collection process out of respect for the artists and so that they wouldn't encourage people to come and take artifacts without permission. However, the curators spent much of the morning and afternoon taking photos of murals and signs, interviewing protestors, and speaking with volunteers who had spent all of Tuesday night transferring the art from the fence to boards along storefronts on H Street.

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" so that curators decades from now would have the needed material to put together powerful and accurate exhibits. Wednesday's efforts seem to fit right in with that mission.

"There are things that draw our attention based on theme, topic, design, the way things are made, and also placement," says Mary Elliott, a NMAAHC curator. "But what's exciting is this is an overarching Smithsonian thing. This came from our secretary and it has moved quickly throughout."

Elliott says the curators will be relying on members of the community to connect with them and point out specific murals, posters, art collections, and other ephemera that they should be focused on right now.

Melanie Adams, director of the Anacostia Community Museum, was on the scene as well and said the fence and related protests are particularly important for the District's history.

"It's both a national story and a local story," says Adams. "Specifically for the Anacostia Museum, we are about D.C. We are about the D.C. and DMV community. What are the artifacts and things that are going to speak to us five, 10 years from now when we talk about this protest? ... We really are humbled by the people who trust us with their artifacts. It is this really delicate dance of talking with individuals, letting them know that we're going to respect the artifacts they give us, and they will be used for the greater good."

The fence along H Street that was erected to keep protesters out of Lafayette Square in front of the White House, covered in protest signs. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

For much of Wednesday, while Lafayette Square was still off limits, families and visitors strolled casually through the newly-christened Black Lives Matter Plaza, stopping for a photo in front of the massive sign along the fence, or buying water and "I can't breathe" masks from vendors camping out along the road.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a press briefing on Wednesday that the city is "in the process of supporting in any way we can" to preserve the artifacts from the ongoing protests in front of the White House. Christopher Geldart said that the Department of Public Works helped the volunteers move the posters to the boards across the street. "We will have the opportunity to preserve those in our own archives or share those with other institutions," Bowser said.

The Anacostia Community Museum had already started a project collecting "moments of resilience" during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of three Smithsonian museums who launched projects related to the coronavirus. Adams says the Anacostia Community Museum's project has expanded to include stories from the current protests. Locals are encouraged to submit their stories online to become part of the museum's collection, she says.

A young family, Atiim and Kecia Penn, arrived on Wednesday with their year-old daughter Kaiia, having avoided the protests for safety reasons. Now, Atiim says, he wanted to come with his family to see the fence—to see history—and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

"My main thing is, why did it take so long for this to happen?" Atiim says. "But I can't believe we're here to witness it. It's amazing to see."

Theirs is exactly the type of story the Smithsonian is looking at as it seeks to capture this moment.

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