Protest and Political History Collecting
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has an ongoing commitment to documenting the spirit of American democracy and the American political process, including how people express their opinions through political rallies, demonstrations and protests as well as during Presidential campaigns and elections. This is part of the museum’s comprehensive plan to collect objects and archival materials that document and explain the past and present to future visitors and researchers.
Most recently, curators from the museum’s Political History Division have attended and collected from racial, social justice and election related events, including the Black Lives Matter protests, from the fence near the White House, the “Women’s March” in 2017 and 2018, and the Dreamers protest at the Supreme Court in 2020.
When museum curators attend marches or events, they assess available materials for how they represent the points-of-view expressed by the participants. Generally, new acquisitions include items like signs, pamphlets, buttons and hats, which are either handmade by the owners or official materials distributed by organizers.
This collecting is part of the museum’s long tradition of documenting how Americans participate in the political process and how citizens exercise their first amendment rights of assembly and speech. The museum collects from contemporary events because many of these materials are ephemeral and, if not collected immediately, are lost to the historical record.
The museum’s political history collection includes a broad spectrum of objects related to presidential history and political campaigning, as well as the history of the White House and First Ladies, civil rights, and women’s suffrage and reform movements.
Contemporary acquisitions also include materials related to the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States and from the annual “March for Life.” Previously, the Museum collected materials related to the Obama/McCain and Trump/Clinton Presidential campaigns, immigration demonstrations on the National Mall, gay marriage demonstrations and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” campaigns, the 2010 Tea Party rally, Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and the 2011 American Conservative Union’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference). Several signs from this collection are on display in the “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” and “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” exhibitions. The museum is currently closed due to the COVID -19 pandemic.
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