This month we are grateful to poet Erica Charis, who submitted “In history as it happens,” an erasure poem in response to this month’s prompt, “In an era of strife, museums collect history as it happens,” provided by collaborating poet Karineh Mahdessian.
Thank you to the poets who invest their inspiration and creativity into this project and thanks as ever to our devoted readers.
“In an Era of strife, museums collect history as it happens”
WASHINGTON — In April 2015, Aaron Bryant rushed to be there when demonstrations swept through Baltimore on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. He filmed protesters angered by Mr. Gray’s death throwing rocks, watched the helicopters overhead and listened to marchers singing hymns.
But Mr. Bryant was neither a police officer nor a participant in the protest. He was a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there to collect artifacts, testimony and footage as the events unfolded. During the days of protest, he mingled with the crowds, solicited donations of clothing and signs and scooped up posters, fliers and buttons.
So after Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton addressed a rally one day, Mr. Bryant approached to ask if she might donate the anti-violence T-shirt she was wearing. It now hangs in the museum.
Though curators have long secured select artifacts whose significance was immediately apparent, museum experts say the scope of what the African American museum and others now call “rapid response collecting” has grown significantly in recent years.
The museum’s collection includes dozens of items gathered during the protests — a rake used in the cleanup, a placard that demanded “Justice for Freddie Gray” — some obtained on the spot, others days later after curators had combed social media, television and newspapers to find people who were there and ask what they might donate.
“We are in times that require us to acknowledge that history is happening before our eyes,” Mr. Bryant said.
In recent years, the museum has gathered hundreds of artifacts from other sudden, pivotal events: a suit worn in Ferguson, Mo., by a pastor protesting the death of Michael Brown; a Black Panther pin worn during the Million Man March anniversary in Washington; signs from the recent days of racial strife in Charlottesville, Va., and clothing that denounced the death of Eric Garner in New York.
“Any moment when America is debating its identity, it’s crucial to collect it,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director.
In Manhattan, the New-York Historical Society, sends out its “history brigades” to events like Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March. In Orlando, Fla., the Orange County Regional History Center hurried to collect some 5,300 items to help it record the tragedy of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“The police were out investigating and doctors were saving lives,” said Pam Schwartz, the Orlando museum’s chief curator. “And I had a job to do, too. What I do is preserve history.”
Ms. Schwartz and her staff drove a van through the streets in the weeks after the shooting, collecting drawings, cards and other objects from impromptu memorials, and putting up signs explaining that the tributes were being taken to a museum. Later, when the crime scene investigators were finished, she returned and persuaded the owner of the nightclub to let her have for the collection a bullet-riddled door from the bathroom and a cabinet where people had hidden.
“Think of it as Abraham Lincoln’s hat,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Physical proof in 200 years that this event actually happened.”
W. James Burns, chairman of the curators committee of the American Alliance of Museums, said that institutions have traditionally waited for scholarship and perspective to sort out the significant from the ephemeral.
The flag known as the “Star-Spangled Banner,” now in the National Museum of American History here, for example, did not become part of the Smithsonian Institution until 1907, more than 90 years after it flew over Fort McHenry.
Now, Mr. Burns said, “People expect us to be collecting as events happen because history is being seen as not what happened 50 years ago but what happened yesterday.”
Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan, said that to collect contemporaneously is to engage in “fast, emotional, gut-instinctive decision-making.”
Aaron Bryant, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Mr. Bunch acknowledged, though, that collecting as events unfold could be risky. There’s no guarantee that the material his curators gather and commit to preserving will turn out to be historically important. There’s the risk that the museum can seem to be making a political statement about an event just because it is collecting from it. And each item takes up valuable storage space and has to be maintained, an expensive process.
But Mr. Bunch said the risks were worth it, and wondered today what artifacts he might have collected from, say, the Rodney King riots that rocked Los Angeles in 1992 or the life of Barbara Jordan, the congresswoman and scholar.
One moment the museum did not miss: the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Within days, Michèle Gates Moresi, a curator, learned that the Virginia campaign headquarters was closing and its contents were going to the Dumpster. She drove to Fairfax with a colleague in her husband’s Chevrolet Blazer and took away office furniture, signs, photographs, whiteboards and other objects that could one day be reconfigured to convey the atmosphere of a campaign that had helped elect America’s first black president.
“It is in the moment; it is very serendipitous,” Ms. Moresi said.
While several museums have recognized the potential of contemporary collecting, few are practicing it more systematically than the African American museum.
As unrest simmered in Ferguson, in 2014 after the shooting death of Mr. Brown, Mr. Bunch met with more than 20 museum staff members and asked them to start devoting considerably more of their time to collecting from the present.
Within weeks of the meeting, curators had started to locate objects from Ferguson, eventually gathering a gas mask worn during the protests by a journalist and activist, a mirrored coffin sculpture that had been carried through the streets and the wood used to board up a storefront.
“We are a museum of the present as well,” said Rhea Combs, the curator who found the gas mask.
In Baltimore, four months later, as protests swelled because of Mr. Gray’s death from injuries suffered while in police custody, Mr. Bryant said he decided there was too much happening on the day of the funeral to simply rely on capturing it all on his cellphone. So he also sought out anyone in the crowd who was holding a camera and looked serious about taking pictures.
“Someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was a real photographer,” Jermaine Gibbs recalled. At the time, Mr. Gibbs said, he was spending more time shooting weddings than history.
“I said, ‘Yes,’” Mr. Gibbs said, “and he gave me his card. Two weeks later he reached out to me.” Mr. Bryant and a colleague reviewed more than a thousand of Mr. Gibbs’s pictures, and chose 19. Three are currently on exhibit at the museum.
When events in Charlottesville exploded this summer, the curators from the African American museum were too far away to begin collecting in person, so they sought out intermediaries to help document the clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters.
Mr. Bryant reached out to several people and persuaded a University of Virginia graduate student who had taken part in the protests to donate some objects.
Three weeks after the events, the first glimpse of those gifts showed up on Mr. Bryant’s computer in his fifth-floor office inside the museum. They were photographs of placards that had been paraded through the streets. Mr. Bryant opened his email to look at the images.
One homemade sign featured a picture of a clenched fist.
The words read, “Destroy All Monsters.”
Another declared “Destroy White Supremacy.”
It was a beginning, and Mr. Bryant looked pleased. “Not too shabby,” he said.
Erica Charis-Molling is a Creative Writing Instructor for Berklee Online. She is pursuing her M.F.A. at Antioch University. She occasionally posts (not in the 3rd person) on her blog: lettheceleryrot.wordpress.com.