Fight the power | Collecting 21st century protest movements
With industrial unrest taking place across the UK, protest is a topic that we are all very aware of at the moment. It can take many forms, including strike action, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, vigils and online campaigns, to name a few.
The cost of living crisis, the pandemic, oppressive government policies, environmental crises and the Black Lives Matter movement are among the issues that have galvanised people to make their voices heard, whether in the physical world or online.
The issue of how to collect and display objects and ephemera that accurately represent this period of rapidly evolving resistance has been a challenge for museums – even for those that hold robust historical collections on the subject.
The collecting policy at Bradford’s Peace Museum, which is moving to a new home in the city this year, has always revolved around inspiring people to think about peace-making, while celebrating the country’s history of non-violent direct action.
Protest is an important aspect of this mission and the collection holds an impressive selection of carefully stitched banners calling for disarmament, as well as more than 2,000 badges bearing idiosyncratic slogans such as: “Reluctant housewives against the bomb”. There will be more space to display these pieces when the museum relocates later this year.
For curator Charlotte Houlahan, the provenance of each object is important when telling the human story behind these protests. She therefore seeks out the owner’s voices when acquiring new pieces.
“We use social media and newsletters to put a call-out for objects, which can be very fruitful, and it also means we get the story behind the protest and its maker,” she says.
“We ask people to write in their own words why they attended a particular march or demonstration, which gives much better context than if I wrote the texts and labels myself.”
Respecting the donors
Houlahan explains that while contemporary collecting demands a certain amount of reactivity, there are also important ethical factors to consider.
“As much as we want an object, it’s also important to make sure that person is ready to donate it,” she says. “People who go out and protest are often experiencing something very physically and emotionally charged, and we have to respect that.”
This sentiment is echoed by Andrea Hadley-Johnson, the artistic programme manager at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham. “In our recent exhibition Young People and Protest,we had a big wall of protest photographs,” she says. “We had to be careful, because if some people are recognisable, it might make them vulnerable. Presenting these kinds of first-person narratives and lived experience can’t be done flippantly. All museums should be having conversations about safeguarding individuals.”
Hadley-Johnson also points to the importance of open dialogue and working actively with protesters when considering how a museum might collect. For example, a successful workshop that took place on an Extinction Rebellion school strike day saw participants make placards on site before heading to the demonstration.
“After observing who came to the workshop and attended subsequent protests, I began asking who has the privilege to protest,” says Hadley-Johnson. “This led to insightful conversations with young people of colour, who might not feel safe to go on demonstrations, particularly with the new policing bill around public protests. It is also important to address that protest can mean a lot of different things. There is also quiet activism and symbols such as badges, which are tools of subversion.”
The museum incorporated new interpretation of these symbols when designing the displays for Young People and Protest. This included collaborating with two artists, Saria Digregorio and Bernie Rutter, who drew on collaborative outreach projects with schools and the local community to distil the essence of protest placards and badges, and evoke the ephemeral, DIY aesthetic often associated with collective resistance.
Hadley-Johnson says that the idea of a museum as a passive onlooker is not something she advocates, particularly as collecting relevant objects demands respect for and cooperation from the community.
“We are making the museum an active and visible ally by being out on the street, which means people want to collaborate with us,” she says. “For example, we took part in Reclaim the Night – an annual march against violence towards women – and people left their placards with us. We then worked with a range of groups to decide what should be included. This slower process of collecting feels right, knowing that we were invited or wanted.”
This sensitivity is important when considering that museums are often regarded as establishment institutions, and individuals might not be happy for their materials to be collected without their consent. This was the case in 2020, when the Whitney Museum in New York cancelled an exhibition titled Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change after it became apparent that the works of art had been acquired via racial justice fundraisers, at discounted rates.
Artists accused the museum of failing to respect the value of their work and the cause, and while an urgency to capture the spirit of the moment might have seemed pressing, the collecting policy fell short.
In other cases, directly commissioning or acquiring artists’ work can be a powerful way to enrich existing collections. For example, the People’s History Museum in Manchester has enormous holdings related to the support of democracy, whether it be posters, ceramics, clothing or personal papers.
A 2020 commission saw photographer Jake Hardy take to the streets and document Black Lives Matter protests in Manchester – the series includes images of placard-filled marches and people taking the knee. It has been made available online, extending the reach of the story’s impact.
Similarly, the Museum of London recently obtained artist Jeremy Deller’s 2019 film Putin’s Happy, which documents Brexit protests taking place in Westminster.
“The film he made presents both sides of those arguments and encapsulates the state of the nation at that moment,” says senior curator Francis Marshall. “It is both compelling and very accessible, which is important. Film has a dynamism, but it also needs to be taken in context with other things, such as the physical objects on display that were worn or held by protesters. If you have both, you build up a real picture.”
Meanwhile, at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the successful 2013 campaign to pardon the gay wartime computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing for gross indecency led to the acquisition of new protest objects.
“In the past, the story of Alan Turing’s persecution has only been represented by symbols such as a bottle of hormones, relating to his chemical castration,” says senior curator Katherine Belshaw. “However, we wanted to collect in a way that was more engaging and inclusive, and that celebrates him as an LGBTQ icon. We were lucky enough to reach out to MP John Leech, who spearheaded the campaign, and he donated items he had already amassed.”
The acquisition included placards, badges and even beer mats that relayed facts about the great codebreaker to inform people while they were enjoying a pint.
This ephemera gives further context to the technological inventions related to Turing, which are on display at the museum. Belshaw says: “We know that people connect with stories of science and technology when there is a relatable human element, which is part of the driver for collecting this kind of material, along with telling stories that are inclusive and reflect the audience we serve.”
Receiving personal donations collected over time can also lead to some great social history that might be lost, particularly as so many protest-related items are ephemeral.
According to Ed Bartholomew, senior curator at the National Railway Museum in York, these finds can be some of the most engaging and surprising. “Sometimes the value of a piece isn’t apparent until you have some historical perspective, which is a perennial issue when trying to collect in a contemporary way,” he says.
Examples include a placard that was written on the back of a Liverpool Folk Festival advertisement. “It gives you a sense of who might have been a railway enthusiast during the 1960s,” Bartholomew says. He also points out that protests and campaigns have been an important facet of British railway construction since its inception.
The right track
“Railways are a subject that’s dear to everybody’s heart – love them or hate them – so we really want to capture a range of opinions, particularly as train lines are such an important part of the conversation around protecting the environment and sustainability too.”
Once again, representing a range of voices is key to portraying the true spirit of protest, where there is never one viewpoint. In the context of the controversial HS2 project, Bartholomew adds that it is a perfect example of the breadth of people who engage in resistance.
“There is a preconception that campaigners are a core group of radical activists, but there is a wide demographic of people protesting,” he says.
In reframing protest as an act that goes beyond the usual cliches, museums can engage with sensitive issues and differing opinions by highlighting the voices of the people involved. For the National Justice Museum this means interrogating newspaper headlines and social media, while asking visitors to respond to the ways that protesters might be celebrated or vilified, through interactive displays.
“Unless something is obviously hateful, we don’t self-censor,” says Hadley-Johnson. “In our experience, people from all walks of life are having vibrant conversations in a respectful way, and museums should support that.”
Holly Black is a freelance writer