Museum curators documenting history in the making amid pandemic, protests

Posted at 4:02 PM, Jul 01, 2020

2020 has proven to be a year to remember and museums want to make sure future generations will be able to see what we're living through right now.

If you think about what you've seen and read about history, it's stories, often told through artifacts. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, research is always happening. In fact, Aaron Bryant, the museum's curator, says he's like the historical version of a news reporter.

“We’re very much committed to, at our museum, committed to being a conduit for voices and we just provide a platform for people to share their stories,” said Bryant.

And these days, there are so many stories to tell, as we watch history unfold before our eyes.

“Our museum isn’t just about the past, it’s about the present moment and looking towards the future,” he said. “How does history help to inform where we are and where we hope to be for generations to come?”

Bryant describes the museum as amazing. He and this team take pride in their ability to tell the American story through an African American lens.

Right now, a lot of their artifact collection is happening in real time. That means they're having discussions with demonstrators, building relationships so they can collect and store memories and items.

“A conversation with someone or a group of people and at the moment they decide to give something to you because they want it to be remembered and want their stories told,” said Bryant.

They want people to be able to relate and connect to what they're collecting. And that means thinking about the ways in which people communicate.

“How do we collect cell phone photographs as well as videos of people who are participating in demonstrations or are a part of some transformative event, how do we do that digitally?”

That means they need to think about the technological format. What they feature in their museum and in their collections must last through the next 100 to 200 years.

“Think about a document maybe 10 to 20 years ago. Would you be able to access that document today, floppy disks for example, so if we collect digitally what’s the best way to archive what would be an artifact and how would people access it in the future,” said Bryant.

On their website, the museum states it is interested in gathering things related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the quarantine, the social protest movement for police reform and social justice. That could be something like a face mask that says, "I can't breathe," protest signs, and art.

Bryant says, “I think some of the boards covering businesses and have murals painted by artists are really interesting because that speaks both to COVID. Businesses are closed because of COVID and then the artists come in and paint messages as well as other folks coming in and posting signs.”

And he says, he wants an actual picture of the physical item for context.

“Were people surrounding this artifact? Was it a place that folks congregated? Was it like the North Star of some of the demonstrations that attracted people to that site?”

In the museum's collection, for example, there are placards carried at Black Lives Matter protests in Washington D.C. in 2014, the demonstrations for Michael Brown Junior, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. There are also shoes, worn to a protest in Ferguson, Missouri.

“One of the reasons we collect these objects is to preserve the memory and the human experience behind the artifact, why is the artifact important, what it represents, the humanity and human story behind the object.”

If you have a story to tell, museums everywhere want to hear from you. The possibilities are endless, as it seems every day of 2020 has been one for the history exhibits and books.