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Historical Institutions Collect Occupy Wall Street Artifacts

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(credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) – Occupy Wall Street may still be working to shake the notion it represents a passing outburst of rage, but some establishment institutions have already decided the movement’s artifacts are worthy of historic preservation.

More than a half-dozen major museums and organizations from the Smithsonian Institution to the New York Historical Society have been avidly collecting materials produced by the Occupy movement.

Staffers have been sent to occupied parks to rummage for buttons, signs, posters and documents. Websites and tweets have been archived for digital eternity. And museums have approached individual protesters directly to obtain posters and other ephemera.

The Museum of the City of New York is planning an exhibition on Occupy for next month.

“Occupy is sexy,” said Ben Alexander, who is head of special collections and archives at Queens College in New York, which has been collecting Occupy materials. “It sounds hip. A lot of people want to be associated with it.”

To keep established institutions from shaping the movement’s short history, protesters have formed their own archive group, stashing away hundreds of cardboard signs, posters, fliers, buttons, periodicals, documents and banners in temporary storage while they seek a permanent home for the materials.

“We want to make sure we collect it from our perspective so that it can be represented as best as possible,” said Amy Roberts, a library and information studies graduate student at Queens College who helped create the archives working group.

The archives group has been approached by institutions seeking to borrow or acquire Occupy materials. Roberts said they are discussing donating the entire collection to the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Tamiment declined to comment.

The library’s collection is among the country’s oldest of materials on socialism, communism and social protest movements in the U.S.

A handful of protesters began camping out in September in a lower Manhattan plaza called Zuccotti Park, outraged at Wall Street excess and income inequality; they were soon joined by others who set up tents and promised to occupy “all day, all night.” Similar camps sprouted in dozens of cities nationwide and around the world. Many were forcibly cleared.

Much of the frenzied collection by institutions began in the early weeks of the protests. In part, they were seeking to collect and preserve as insurance against the possibility history might be lost — not an unusual stance by archivists.

What appears to be different is the level of interest from mainstream institutions across a wide geographic spectrum and the new digital-only ventures that have sprung up to preserve the movement’s online history.

The lavish attention poured on the liberal-leaning movement has not gone unnoticed by conservatives.

Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, blogged sarcastically under its “Corruption Chronicles” about the choice by the Smithsonian to document Occupy.

“It looks like it’s taxpayer-funded hoarding, as opposed to rigorous historical collecting,” said Tom Fitton, president of the organization.

The Smithsonian said its American history collection also now includes materials related to the massive tea party rally against health care reform in March 2010 and materials from the American Conservative Union’s Washington, D.C., conference in February.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University launched OccupyArchive.org in mid-October on a hunch that it could become historically important. So far, it has about 2,500 items in its online database, including compressed files of entire Occupy websites from around the country and hundreds of images scraped from photo-sharing site Flickr.

“This kind of social movement is probably more interesting to me, to be honest about it. And also so much of it is happening digitally. On webpages. On Twitter,” said Sheila Brennan, the associate director of public projects. “I guess I didn’t see as much of that with the tea party.”

Curators and those in charge of collections at institutions said it was not too soon to think about preserving elements of the Occupy movement.

“We like to collect things as they are happening before the artifacts go away,” said Esther Brumberg, senior curator of collections for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.

Brumberg said the museum had approached “Occupy Judaism” co-organizer Daniel Sieradski about a poster he had done for a Yom Kippur prayer service for protesters at Zuccotti Park that drew hundreds of people. The poster shows the silhouetted fiddler image from the Jewish musical “Fiddler on the Roof” astride the Wall Street bull.

Sieradski said it made sense that his poster should end up in the museum’s permanent collection.

“What I think is great is that they are actually looking to build their collection around contemporary American Jewish history and maybe broaden what their offerings are to the public so that they can tell a more complete story,” he said.

While there are no immediate plans to use the poster in an exhibition, Brumberg called it “just one of a number of instances of Jewish activism” that they are interested in and are trying to collect.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History gave a similar explanation for sending staff to Zuccotti Square during the encampment, where they were spotted picking up materials. The museum said it was part of its tradition of documenting how Americans participate in a democracy. It declined to allow staff to be interviewed.

“Historians like to take the long view and see how things play out,” said spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig in an email, adding that staff wouldn’t feel “comfortable” discussing the protests until some time had passed.

Staff at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University set up a system to download and archive tweets about Occupy. So far, they have harvested more than 5 million tweets from more than 600,000 unique Twitter users. Ultimately the database will be made available to scholars, said Stewart Varner, the digital scholarship coordinator at the library.

The New York Public Library has added Occupy periodicals to its collection and is considering obtaining some protest ephemera.

And the Internet Archive, a massive online library of free digital books, audio and texts, has opened a mostly user-generated collection about the movement. As of Friday, the Occupy collection included more than 2,000 items, while its “Tea Party Movement” collection had fewer than 50.

Unlike other institutions focused only on collecting, the Museum of the City of New York is planning a photography exhibition on Occupy at its South Street Seaport Museum offshoot when it reopens in January.

Chief curator Sarah Henry said the museum will also include materials on the movement in a new gallery opening in the spring that focuses on social activism in New York City.

The New-York Historical Society has collected between 300 and 400 items from the movement, said Jean Ashton, the library director. Ashton recognized the contradiction inherent in an establishment institution collecting Occupy materials.

“There are probably people in Occupy Wall Street who the last thing they want is to have their materials in a library or museum somewhere,” she said.

Roberts, the OWS member who is on the archives working group, said it was good that such institutions want to document the movement. However, she said they would prefer the institutions collaborate with the participants. “We know more about the movement and the stories behind the materials that have been collected,” she said.

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