Story at a glance

  • After George Floyd was killed, demonstrators across the country took to the streets to protest the police's use of force in his arrest.
  • In Washington, D.C., a fence installed in front of the White House was soon covered in art memorializing Floyd.
  • Now, the Smithsonian has announced an effort to collect and preserve some of these materials.

The fence installed around the White House to keep out protesters after George Floyd's death is being dismantled by the Secret Service and Lafayette Park is now open to the public once again. But the dozens of signs, memorials and other objects left behind might yet be preserved by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“This museum is as interested in the present as it is in the past,” said Aaron Bryant, a photography and social protest historian working for the Smithsonian. “So much of what happened in the distant past, in many ways, set the stage for what is happening right now, in the summer of 2020, as people gather in groups, large and small, to claim their rights for equality. How they do this — along with the social changes they inspire and the multiracial coalitions they build — need to be documented as crucially important parts of African American history and culture.”


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Bryant is leading the NMAAHC's "rapid response collecting team" in its efforts to collect and document evidence of recent protests in the United States and other countries. The Smithsonian is constantly collecting pieces of history, he said, whether in the form of physical artifacts or oral recollections. In 2017, Bryant’s team documented the protests in Ferguson and nine other cities, photographs from which were incorporated in the museum’s recent exhibition called “More Than a Picture.” 

“Our biggest concern is making sure that this moment in history is preserved,” Bryant said. “When we collect, we’re thinking 50, 100, 200 years from now, we want to make sure these stories and artifacts are preserved for generations to come because people are going to be studying this moment.”

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Starting just miles from the museum, five historians are working with teams from the National Museum of American History and the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. This week, the team conducted interviews outside Lafayette Square taking notes to help guide their collection process. Bryant said they have also had informal conversations with local authorities and are working with the National Parks Service to coordinate their efforts. 


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The curators still don't know when they’ll start to collect physical items, especially as the Smithsonian museums remain closed to the public due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, or how they will eventually be exhibited. For now, they're collecting photographs of objects related to the protests online and asking interested donors to hold on to them until later. Homemade protest signs and placards, T-shirts, photographs, audio recordings, cellphone video footage and original art are some of the items the museum listed as examples, but the list is not exhaustive, according to Bryant.

“For us, it's really about how the artifact represents voices and experiences. It’s not just one voice we’re looking to represent, it's a multitude of voices from many different perspectives,” he said. “Anything has value as long as it has a voice and a story along with it.”


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Published on Jun 11, 2020