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Museums are curating an era of social movements in real time

As Black Lives Matter protests erupted in 2014 after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C. sent curators to collect t-shirts and gas masks -- artifacts it could preserve to inform future generations. From the pushback to President Trump’s immigrant family separation policy to viral social media posts, it and other museums are anticipating the value of documenting unrest in real time. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    This is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Here, decades-old artifacts and photos from the civil rights era are displayed alongside objects depicting a more recent struggle. Lonnie bunch is the museum's founding director.

  • LONNIE BUNCH:

    This is a photo of Ferguson and demonstrations around Ferguson. And what I think is powerful is that 20 years ago we might not have collected this.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The photo was taken during the protests of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown. It was acquired by the museum as part of what it calls its "rapid response collection program". When major events unfold, the museum sends curators into the field to collect artifacts. The idea is to create a record well before the history books are written.

  • LONNIE BUNCH:

    So the goal here is not to sort of sweep in and pick up everything. The goal is to have a few central artifacts that give you many meanings. That allow you to sort of say if somebody sees that, for example, if somebody sees a shirt that says, "Black Lives Matter," we know what that means today. How important it is. But they may not know that 20 years from now. So to be able to have something clear and concise that we can build stories around is what I ask the curators to collect.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Other items from Ferguson in the museum's collection include this gas mask worn by a demonstrator and this suit worn by a pastor who attended the protests. Also collected by museum curators in 2014, this t-shirt worn by a demonstrator protesting the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. In 2015, this rake was used to clean up a Baltimore neighborhood after people took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Grey while he was in police custody. This t-shirt displays the logo of an anti-violence group that formed as a result of the protests. And this Black Panther pin was collected later that same year from the 20th anniversary of the million man march in Washington.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Why is rapid response collecting important to the mission of this center?

  • LONNIE BUNCH:

    In some ways one of the great divides in America's always been race, and that as Americans grapple with a changing sense of who they are, as they grapple with the changing notions of how race matters and plays out, we thought it was really important to capture those moments that were transformative. I'll be honest. Sometimes you guess. You say, "is this going to be important or not?" For us it's really important that this museum, which really has to help the American public grapple with things that have divided us, to not just be about yesterday, but to be about as much about today and tomorrow.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    You know, to play devil's advocate, are you shaping history?

  • LONNIE BUNCH:

    Of course. The job of a scholar is to both look back, make sure you interpret the past with different lenses, but also in a museum your job is to make sure the next generation can interpret the world you live in today. So the kinds of things you collect are shaping history. Shaping the way people interpret history. I know as a scholar of African American history there were many times I wanted to do exhibitions and there was nothing in the collections that could tell those stories. That shapes history by omission. So the notion for me is let's give people as many opportunities as possible. They may decide that stories we've collected aren't that important, and that's fine. But I want to make sure that you've got the resources to be able to tell important stories in the future.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Other institutions use rapid response collection as well. The New York Historical Society began sending out "history brigades" after the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001. And it has collected items commemorating the 2017 and 2018 women's marches on Washington. In Orlando, Florida, the Orange County Regional History Center acquired more than 7,000 items for its "One Orlando" collection. The collection revolves around the 2015 Pulse Nightclub shooting. And the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee has an exhibit on the Trump administration's immigrant family separation policy. The exhibit is titled "I am a child." It was inspired by the iconic "I am a man" photos taken during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. The exhibit uses photographs that went viral on social media earlier this year. They show children protesting on the steps of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency's New York office.

  • LONNIE BUNCH:

    I think whenever America is really debating its identity, debating who it is, grappling with issues that divide us, that's when the museum ought to be more aggressive and collecting material. It just seems to me that a good museum isn't just a place of nostalgia. It's not just a place of the exotic. It's a place that provides people useful tools to grapple with the world they face. And by grappling with the world they face they can make it better.

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