Archivists as Activists

From In These Times:

BY Sady Doyle
June 14, 2012

Can curation be a form of activism? And how well do New Yorkers know, or value, their city’s activist past? These are two questions raised by “Activist New York,” the first exhibition at the newly inaugurated Puffin Foundation Gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit is comprised of 14 separate booths, each devoted to a separate chapter of New York’s activist history; the booths are designed to be removed and replaced over time with new ones that document different chapters of this history. The causes the exhibit explores are eclectic. There’s Stonewall, of course, and the suffrage movement and abolitionism. There’s also space devoted to the recent fight for bike lanes—a cause which, I’m sure, is a grand and noble one, but which is also probably not on anyone’s list of Things That Are Just As Important As Slavery. There’s even a display on mid-20th-century conservative activism, a gesture so big-hearted that it might even be unnecessary, were it not that the pamphlets about welfare-leeching hippies are objectively hilarious.

The exhibit uses mixed media to tell its story. Artifacts from the time are arranged in glass cases, and screens project images of historic events. Scrolls on the wall explain the significance of the time period. An exhibit on the activist theater of the 1930s, for example, contains a bust of actor and civil rights activist Canada Lee. A table for gay rights contains scrolling images of protesters, including one young man holding a sign reading “GOD IS GAY.”

This exhibit about activism and social change is designed to be active, and to change; to move and grow, both with time and with the visitor’s own participation. “It would be a terrible irony if an exhibit on activism allowed viewers to be passive,” says Museum of the City of New York’s chief curator Sarah Henry.

I attended the gallery on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. It wasn’t crowded, but the people in attendance were fully absorbed, peering into touch screens and glass cases. To further engage museumgoers, the exhibit allows people to upload photos of their own activist movements, which are both projected on a wall and visible on the museum’s blog ( This feedback loop allows the museum to reflect history in real time and democratically.

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One Response to “Archivists as Activists”

  1. Stephanie Stevens Says:

    Archivists as Activists: “Can curation be a form of activism?” …

    In my own small way, I’ve asked myself that question more than a few times.

    Nice find (speaking as a NYC native as well), and thanks for posting it, Suzan.

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