The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 garnered global attention with marches happening in cities across the world. Social media and news outlets covered the crowds, the speeches, the signs, the clothing, the police, seemingly every moment of the day's events. Protests are difficult historic events to capture. This course began as an attempt to archive the moments, thoughts, and feelings of Muhlenberg community members as they experienced this event. It quickly turned into more as we realized the scope and problematic nature of archiving ephemera. As Bergis Jules writes, preserving cultural heritage should be an inclusive and community centered process. In practice, efforts to construct an inclusive Muhlenberg Women’s March Archive were beset with some of the same problems that hindered the march itself. Within the context of a primarily white institution, we aimed to adopt collection practices that were open and inclusive. Still, the resulting archive is built on and primarily represents the voices and experiences of white cisgendered, able bodied women. Thus, this course was as much about the ethics and power of documentary and archival production as it was about the practices of building a digital archive and documentary exhibits.
During the semester the Women’s March Archive was produced, new media scholar Abigail DeKosnik visited Muhlenberg and gave a guest lecture in our course. She spoke to students about the political possibilities for marginalized and subcultural groups on campus to create archives of their own, using digital tools and networks, to collect their own cultural materials and narratives. When students spoke about the lack of diversity in the emerging collection and their desire for a more inclusive record, she urged them to think about how they could share not just the digital products of their archive making work, but the process--the documentary, oral history, and digital archival practices and tools--with the wider campus community. How might they share their work on campus in a way that helps build a more inclusive community of student “rogue archivists”? Can they think creatively about how to make the tools and platforms available to other activist groups on campus, to marginalized student communities, who want to do their own documenting and build a collection of their own and determine where it resides?
We hope that the project can help spark campus conversations about why and how to archive student activism as an area of campus life. Students in this course had the idea that one thing the archive can do is make visible to other students and student groups on campus that we have accessible resources and tools and critical support and expertise helpful to doing documentary and archival work. The students who built this archive came to recognize during the semester that documenting and archiving activism on campus must be a shared responsibility and practice if the goal is to value the voices and stories that are most often marginalized or silenced in institutional collections. Students of color, queer and transgender students, Muslim students, and those from other marginalized communities should be involved in decisions about how their campus histories are collected and preserved.
The presence of other speakers on campus brought further lessons in protest, cultural memory, and power. A campus talk by Janaya Khan, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, ignited a barrage of divisive social media on Facebook before their talk and an anonymous flyer distributed on campus the day after the talk purporting to share “alternative truths” regarding police violence. In response, students of color, with the support of the Office of Multicultural Life, posted flyers on campus with statements speaking to their lived experience on campus and the hashtag #BlackOnCampus (some of the flyers are documented here). A large banner was stretched between two trees in the central plaza on campus with the title: “Black Students @ berg Are Tired.” Most of the students in our class saw that banner on the way to our classroom in the morning, and our discussion turned immediately to whether we should document and include these items in our protest collection. This was a conversation among white students and white instructors and by the end of the hour there was a shared recognition that the banner was itself a kind of documentation, and the space between two trees was itself a platform, and that Black students @ berg were making decisions about making their stories public on campus.
Combined, campus visits by DeKosnik and Khan helped us understand more critically the ways that students can confront the silences and gaps in our cultural institutional memory at Muhlenberg , and the histories and experiences that lead some students to choose against contributing their stories to the institutional archive. We hope there will be many efforts that provide space and opportunity for students to consider their role in collecting, documenting and preserving a more inclusive digital heritage at Muhlenberg. #DomainsResist!