Three Washington, D.C.-area museums are collaborating on preserving signs from the George Floyd protests.
WASHINGTON (CN) — The demands for an end to police brutality and protection of civil rights for black Americans on signs clutched by protesters as they marched on the nation’s capital are finding their way to historic preservation.
The African American History and Culture Museum, the American History Museum and the Anacostia Museum have formed a coalition with staff, activists and members of the community curating remnants of a movement long simmering but reignited after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, on video.
Signs and other ephemera were plastered for days along steel fences erected at the northern flank of the White House. As the barricades came down, grassroots calls for conservation went up and many of the messages adorning Black Lives Matter Plaza — newly renamed by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser — were relocated by hand half a block away as activists and curators began engaging.
Aaron Bryant, a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Courthouse News that preserving the movement respectfully was done by cultivating relationships with the people driving it.
“There is a sincere respect for people’s humanity as well as understanding and having concern for their needs and respect for their expectations,” he said.
Bryant spent a few days at Lafayette Square, the scene of weeks of demonstrations, viewing signs with other curators and artists and organizations that put some of the demonstrations together.
Relying on a “network of people we know, personal friends or family, or organizations,” he said, facilitates a broader discussion about what could go on display in museums and why.
For now, the museum is refraining from revealing which signs will be exhibited or which artists are in talks with the coalition.
“We haven’t collected anything yet. We are investigating and looking at potential objects for the collection,” Bryant said.
The review process has been complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic as the museum is closed. When it reopens, review and assessment will continue.
“We have to do research on the artifact, put together a presentation that we would present to a collections committee and then the committee votes,” Bryant said. They also will seek permission from the donors.
The approval process will involve committee hearings and votes, much like nearby Congress. While the raw expression of the movement is being preserved by the museums, the House this week begins grappling with its legislative response in the newly introduced Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
Springing up after protests engulfed Washington, the bill would require racial bias training for state and local police departments, ban the use of chokeholds and modify accountability, liability and transparency standards for officers.
It also tackles qualified immunity as a defense to civil actions against police, making it easier for people to litigate misconduct — something protesters have made integral to their demands.
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill testified to Congress last week that by amending a statute outlining the basis for civil actions challenging the deprivation of rights, the new bill would work toward drastically reshaping qualified immunity, an issue which from 2017 to 2019 in appellate courts was used by officers in 57% of civil cases filed against them for excessive force, she said.
George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told the House Judiciary Committee on June 10 that it was the duty of lawmakers to pass legislation that fostered true reform, ensuring that his brother did not die in vain.
“The people elected you to speak for them, to make positive change. George’s name means something. You have the opportunity here to make your names mean something, too,” he said.
As a curator of visual culture for the African American and Culture Museum, Bryant said he wants the messages left behind to “mean something.”
As he pores over signs, murals and other art heralding calls to respect human rights and dignity, reform the police and end systemic racism, he thought of an aging actor he knew while working at a theater in Connecticut.
“He said he enjoyed the process of learning about the character … and each night he gets out on stage and learns a different thing about them and their humanity. If he’s lucky, he can help the audience do the same,” Bryant said. “But if he’s really lucky, he learns something about his own humanity.”
What comes next, be it in one year or 50, will be a showcase of the unfiltered messages protesters left for history to weigh.
Like the opportunity to step into another person’s experience cherished by his elder actor friend, Bryant said he hopes any resulting exhibits prompt a similar meditation.
“How does this part of the story help people connect not just to the humanity behind these artifacts but connect to their own?” he said.