Today from our sister publication Art Practical we bring you Ashley Stull Meyers’ article from issue 8.3: Art can’t do anything if we don’t. Meyers discusses the collecting institution’s role in politics and protest, exploring “what, how, and to what ends our cultural institutions collect,” specifically in regard to protest ephemera. This article was originally published on March 23, 2017.
January 21 of this year was a historic day for Americans of all political leanings. For those who sympathize with or are protected by liberal-leaning ideology, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington served to illustrate that they were not alone—that an arguable majority of the nation shares their discontent. For those in celebration of the previous day’s inauguration and speculative incoming agenda, it signaled precisely how steep the incline toward a true national conservatism will be. Nearly 3.3 million people nationwide converged on the streets of their respective cities as a collective demonstration against inequities and improprieties—particularly those against cis-gendered, white women.
Images of protesters and their signs flooded social media channels; news outlets of varying reach and audience picked them up in equal measure. By January 22nd, several museums and cultural institutions had announced that they would acquire leftover or donated signs as a marker of the momentous spectacle. This choice surprises even for collecting institutions with an existing interest in historical documents. For public institutions, collecting political ephemera is fairly provocative. Museum acquisitions are inherently transactional, be it financially, conceptually, or both. Institutions either purchase artworks and artifacts outright, receive them as donations with their financial value declared, or accept them as gifts with acknowledgement of the institution’s and the donor’s growing relationship. Even when no money changes hands, it’s not unusual to expect a future quid pro quo.