Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Archives

I'm sorry. I'm breaking my promise to myself and to you and am going to post about something a little serious this morning. Despite vowing to write only lighthearted post from now through the holidays, I just didn't feel like I could let this article go by without commenting. I couldn't leave myself all riled up with no place to post.

Please read:

National Museum of American History collects Occupy Wall Street memorabilia 

This article makes it sound like archivists and museum professionals are wandering aimlessly looking for OWS artifacts,  but I assume the Smithsonian and other "major historical institutions" have a collection plan of some sort. In my opinion, the article shows some lack of understanding about what cultural heritage professionals do.  It seems to me that if our profession is to be valued and funded that we need to fix part of the perception presented here. We do not collect what is popular or what people remember. We collect TO remember and Occupy Wall Street is an important part of our current events that needs to be evaluated by historians in due time. Those out collecting "ephemera" are doing exactly what they should be doing as good professionals and this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. 

Attempts to collect Occupy Wall Street items may present a good opportunity to teach the public about the role of memory institutions. We should explain why we are collecting these things. We should use the opportunity to show other similar things in our collections -- how our collections show the rise and sometimes the fall of movements. Our collections help historians and others better understand our past so that we better understand ourselves and can move more surely into the future. 

I do think it is a shame that a major newspaper such as the Washington Times presented our work in such a cavalier way. While not wrong in their facts, they create a perception that museum collecting and ebay sales should be thought of in the same way. In fact, it was the first paragraph that made me jittery right off the bat:

"Early in October, staffers from the Smithsonian Museum of American History went through the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York’s Zucotti Park collecting hand-made posters and other material to build up a record of the embryonic movement in case the protesters end up in the history books - and not just in jail for unlawful assembly and messing up public spaces. "

"In case the protesters end up in the history books..." I wonder... from where do they think the historians get their information for their history books?


  1. Good for you, too often are professional collection organisations viewed as merely scavengers. In 100 years, or more, from now this activity may be viewed as a critical turn in the culture of not only one country but perhaps the whole world. Keep up your significant work and valued contribution to the real society. Ignore the media who are well known for misrepresenting and sensationalist reporting rather than giving researched fact.

  2. "Ignore the media who are well known for misrepresenting and sensationalist reporting rather than giving researched fact."
    yeah I tend to do that with the NYTimes and WashPost

    seriously each newspaper has an agenda. to get an accurate picture of what takes place one must read widely

  3. Misrepresentation by the press is not restricted to the USA. it's just as bad here in Australia and in just about every country. It's not about about telling the truth it's all about selling advertising space.

  4. Another short article on museum collecting Occupy Wall Street material:

  5. This is a good article on the subject of the OWS archives