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The Visual Culture of the Women’s March on Washington and the Issue of Archives

By Erika Kindsfather

Credit:Jenny Sowry

 After Donald Trump’s inauguration in the United States and the political concerns surrounding this event sparked a broader interest in public demonstration, the Internet has been ripe with news articles covering the Women’s March on Washington, namely ones listing the “Best Signs” of the event. With the valid and important criticisms of the march, we are reminded of not only the possibility of exclusionary language in rhetoric and visuals surrounding the demonstration, but also a question of how the memory of this event will be preserved.

New York Magazine reported that numerous museums and libraries across the globe are collecting signs from the Woman’s March on Washington and the march’s equivalents in other cities globally. These institutions intend to archive the signs as a preservation of the march, which has been hailed as the largest demonstration turnout in history. Yet in collecting these signs, institutions are preserving a specific memory of the event, and ultimately a specific narrative of the concerns that brought individuals out on January 21st.

Signs left at the White House on January 21. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images, taken from nymag.com

Women of color, trans folks, and people living with disabilities in the United States have spoke out about the exclusionary white feminist climate that the march largely took on, citing signs that center womanhood around having a vagina, “pussyhats,” and signs that coopted AAVE and popular language of the civil rights movement as means to create a witty slogan. These signs and the predominantly middle-class white women carrying them left many marginalized folks feeling excluded in the march’s space and political narrative. Jenna Wortham expresses these issues of access to the demonstration space and it’s media coverage in her article “Who Didn’t Go to the Women’s March Matters More Than Who Did,” giving attention to the concerns of marginalized folks who have been active and vocal about intersectional feminist issues long before the inauguration, yet largely ignored and misrepresented by mainstream media.

Sign by Dylan Brekka, photo by me

I felt confronted by the issue of preserving the signs of the Women’s March on Washington when I saw that Temple University in Philadelphia was among the institutions calling for collections. Articles critiquing the Women’s March’s original title, The Million Women’s March, cited that a demonstration organized and carried out by African American women in Philadelphia by that name in 1997, went largely ignored by history despite its 750,000-people turnout. The Women’s March on Washington’s Philadelphia event turned out around 50,000 people. With these numbers in mind, Temple’s collection of signs from the Women’s March on Washington becomes an emblem of the issues of selection in archiving history. Institutions have the power to select what, and whom we remember through objects in creating an archive and displaying objects that represent a specific historical memory.

Artist Fred Wilson’s exhibition Mining the Museum (1992-1993) brings the role institutions play in constructing historical narratives and perpetuating exclusionary biases to light in the gallery space. Wilson created juxtapositions in the space of the Maryland Historical Society with objects from their archives, positioning them strategically to highlight the narratives of people that institutions omit from visual historical narratives. For example, Wilson positioned three busts of famous white men near three empty black pedestals with the names Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Fredrick Douglass written on them. This attention to the institution’s role in excluding certain histories, namely that of marginalized people, from displays and archives leads me to question whose voices will dominate the budding archives of signage from the Women’s March on Washington.

Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum, 1992-1993. Image from http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/fred-wilson/

Ultimately in the creation of these archives, I am hoping due space will be given to signs with intersectional, inclusive messages that are not tokenizing. I urge you to think about what you are able to access in institutional archives. Whose voices are given space, and whose are erased in the history that institutions preserve visually? Remember that marginalized individuals have spoken out regarding their decision to not attend the Women’s March on Washington due to the exclusionary environment created largely by the ideologies projected through the very signs museums and other institutions are collecting. How, then, can these voices be incorporated into the narrative of the demonstration in an institution’s visual archives? 

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