Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Museums and libraries are collecting ephemera that encapsulates social upheaval.
Almost immediately after November’s presidential election, neon sticky notes began latticing the walls of the tunnels snaking through the Union Square subway station in Manhattan. The Subway Therapy wall, launched by the artist Matthew Chavez, sprawled through the station and spawned similar stunts in other cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Passersby paused to jot down their thoughts, giving voice to anxieties both national and personal.
The fluorescent fur generated a lot of attention, and a book deal. Then, last month, the installation was dismantled. Through a partnership between the MTA and the History Responds arm of the New-York Historical Society, a version of the project is doing a stint on the museum’s façade. The public can add to the heap of notes plastered to the building’s glass front through January 20; afterwards, the trove of scribbles will enter the museum’s permanent collection. The musings will be gridded on mylar sheets and packed into two acid-free boxes.
A museum tells the story of a place and time through objects—and not just ones excavated from a far-off past. Institutions are constantly collecting for the future. “We’re anthropologists of the now,” says Rebecca Klassen, the Historical Society’s assistant curator of material culture.
Telling the story about how politics shapes daily lives often involves tracking the ways that residents raise their voices. In the present moment, curators are scouring the city on the trail of ephemera that functions as a synecdoche for the groundswell of protest and nationalism that surged in the wake of the election. Those dueling commitments continue to spar in the days leading up to the inauguration: Protests bookending the swearing-in are projected to draw hundreds of thousands of demonstrators railing against the incoming administration.
“Generations from now, there will be an extreme interest. People are going to want to know what the response was from the public in 2016,” the Historical Society’s museum director Margi Hofer says. “Today is history too.”
So far, Hofer estimates that the museum has collected several hundred objects from the current election cycle. One of the Trump campaign’s signature “Make America Great Again” baseball caps—autographed by the President-elect—sits in a museum-quality storage box. A hand-scribbled sign—spindly black letters against white posterboard—reading “Power to the Pussy” will soon be sandwiched between flat files in acid-free folders. Those items join a robust collection of political ephemera dating back to George Washington’s inauguration in 1789.
When they collect contemporary items, curators are constantly adjudicating quotidian wares’ prospective significance decades down the line. (A future permanent collection gallery, opening this spring, challenges visitors to take a stab at it, choosing from 15 banal objects that serve as snapshots of contemporary culture.) Curators use a bunch of metrics to decide what to keep, Klassen explains: They aim for a mix of mass-produced and handmade, a diversity of leanings, and a mix of unusual and expected. “You want to look for the exceptional, but also what’s representative of the event as a whole,” she adds.
There are logistical concerns, too. Political buttons or flat objects are easy to store; anything bulky or “bigger than a toaster” gives them pause, Hofer says. In general, food is a problem. When they sorted through a grab bag from the opening of the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway, for instance, the curators came across a chocolate-chip cookie wrapped in an MTA logo. “We said, ‘well, that’s problematic,’” Hofer recalls. “So we ate it.”
And the curators gravitate toward objects with a great story. When Hofer spotted Kelly Jacobs’ picture in The New York Times last summer, she knew Jacobs’ dress, collaged with portraits of Barack Obama, belonged in the museum’s collection of political textiles, next to kerchiefs and scarves. She emailed Jacobs, who is a Mississippi delegate and essentially a lone Democrat in a heavily Republican county. The object was remarkable, but so was the story of a woman going door-to-door to get out the vote in a region where her political leanings were not widely shared. Hofer says Jacobs was “thrilled to donate” the dress, and the garment was soon on display. Jacobs even came to visit it, decked out in a dress bearing portraits of Hilary Clinton. She sent Hofer a thank-you note with a picture of herself posing next to the dress. It sits on Hofer’s desk, right next to her computer.
My #ObamaDress is now on display at the New York Historical Society museum! Quite an honor! My President Obama dress, facinator, gloves, purse & #DNCConvention credential were happily donated for prosperity. #PoliticalFashionista #PoliticalFashion #KellyJacobs #ILoveObama #ImWithHer I still have 9 more Obama dresses plus 7 Hillary dresses. Google Kelly Jacobs, delegate to see some.
Other institutions are on the hunt for election swag, too. The Smithsonian museum dispatches troops of curators to canvass the political conventions in pursuit of swag. Some of the prime specimens will be on view in an exhibition about political sovereignty slated to open this summer, the New Yorker reported.
Real-time collecting is also encoded in the DNA of the periodicals division of the New York Public Library, which has a wide and deep holding of zines and pamphlets addressing the intersection of the personal and political realms. Historically, the museum has committed itself to “collecting all points of view, and we want to continue doing that in the future,” says Karen Gisonny, the NYPL’s periodicals librarian. Among the periodicals she’s looking to add to the collection are the Radix Journal—the literary arm of the National Policy Institute, the organization spearheaded by the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who advocates an agenda of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”—and RESIST!, a 40-page tabloid newspaper rolling out to coincide with the inauguration and Women’s March on Washington. Printed in a run of 58,000 copies, the publication features political cartoons and images by a network of contributors, including the graphic artists Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast.
For both Gisonny and Klassen, collecting often happens in person. Klassen plans to head to D.C. this weekend. A former editor at a knitting magazine, she says she’s especially keen on finding a knitted “pussy hat.” When the curators approach people at protests, Hofer says, they often follow a similar script, explaining that the object could be an addition to the permanent collection, and asking if the creator or wearer would consider donating it. For the most part, people appear flattered, Hofer adds. “They feel really validated that the cause they’re going out for is being documented for posterity.”
In the meantime, the collection continues to grow. As I left Hofer’s office on a bitter-blue January morning, I passed a herd of second graders who arrived early for their field trip. They milled in front of the building. Some leapfrogged the steps, taking them two at a time. Others stood on their tip-toes, using a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln as an easel. They held yellow and pink sticky notes that flapped in the breeze, and fumbled with pencils, dexterity hampered by wool mittens.
On the sticky notes, the six-, seven-, and eight-year-old students wrote notes to the president-elect Donald Trump. They carried the notes over to the museum’s façade, and pressed them onto the glass wall.
"Please be nice," one wrote, in careful, jagged print.
"I am scared of you," read another.
Those notes will soon join some 5,000 others in those acid-free boxes, like a shelf-stable diary written with thousands of pens.