Place of Protest: Curating a Digital Exhibit

I am proud to announce the launch of a brand new digital exhibit: Place of Protest: Chicago’s Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption. Featuring collection material from the members of the Chicago Collections Consortium, the exhibit covers fifteen events spanning nearly 150 years to explore how protesters in Chicago occupied space with their bodies, voices, and possessions. Visit the digital exhibit by clicking here or read on to get my take on the curatorial process, see what ended up on the cutting room floor, and learn more about upcoming events.

Curatorial Reflection

Place of Protest was a collaborative endeavor through the Chicago Collections Consortium, which consists of over thirty collecting institutions across the Chicago region. Highlighting historical material from twelve collections, the digital exhibit aimed to balance representation among large and well-staffed collections as well as smaller, less-resourced repositories. In the public history field we often talk about shared authority, or acknowledging the power of both scholars and public stakeholders to create history and meaning. In this project, the stakeholders were contributing consortium members, meaning that knowledgeable, paid archivists and librarians contributed content to an exhibit built to highlight a wide range of content.

While I greatly valued the collaborative spirit of the endeavor, I also found myself in a fairly traditional curatorial role of developing an interpretive product. Questions regarding audience engagement, visitor content production, or public co-development did not figure prominently in the process. Additionally, the exhibit does not engage with knowledge or material beyond historical collection items. For example, the Place of Protest does not directly interact with the work of contemporary activists. I will reflect more on the role of engagement in digital exhibits in an upcoming post, but for now I bring it up to as context for my curatorial decisions. Rather than compiling an encyclopedia or focusing on engagement, I made interpretive choices based on the following criteria:

  • Does the material directly reveal insight into how a protest occupied space?
  • Does the exhibit evenly highlight a broad range of contributing organizations?
  • Does the content include diverse representation of racial, gender, class, and sexual identities?
  • Do the events in the exhibit distribute evenly across time?

What Got Cut

Based on the above criteria, quite a few events that didn’t make the cut. Here are the ones that were the hardest to exclude:

The Young Lords was an organization of Puerto Rican youth primarily in the Lincoln Park neighborhood that organized to fight gentrification, police brutality, and advocate for community control of land and housing. Their tactic of occupying buildings especially spoke to the exhibit’s focus on space. However, I opted to highlight the later Latina organization, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, in part to look at what community protest looked like in Chicago in the years after the high-profile events of the 1960s. For more on the Young Lords, check out DePaul University’s digital collection here as well as this digital showcase at Grand Valley State University.

When teaching the history of conflict and protest in Chicago, I usually start with the Battle of Fort Dearborn to emphasize that Chicago is located on Indigenous land and to begin discussing the forced migration and survivance of American Indians in the region. It also provides context for understanding American Indian Activism in Chicago in the 1970s, including the Chicago Indian Village, which advocated for better services and housing for American Indians living in Chicago. Although the Newberry’s Virgil Vogel papers (as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Relocation Records, 1936-1975) are a rich resource for better understanding urban American Indians, it does not actually include a lot of material about the Chicago Indian Village.

While most of the protests covered in the exhibit featured leftist or liberal dissension, this collection provided an opportunity to analyze how conservative protests occupied space near abortion clinics. The records include locations and maps of clinics as well as escort reports of anti-abortion protesters, police, and media. Alas, the exhibit already included a large amount of material from the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the activities of ACT UP took place around the same time period while providing an opportunity to highlight LGBTQ voices.

What’s Next?

  • For those in the area, I will be hosting a walking tour of select protests covered in the exhibit on October 13th.
  • My next post will be a conversation with a colleague where we think big-picture about the role and function of digital exhibits into the future.
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