Metro

Professors stash rally signs to preserve a piece of history

Professors at Northeastern gathered as many discarded signs from the Boston Women’s March as they could and brought them to a storage facility for safekeeping.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Professors at Northeastern gathered as many discarded signs from the Boston Women’s March as they could and brought them to a storage facility for safekeeping.

As tens of thousands of Boston Women’s March participants slowly trickled away from Boston Common Saturday, one-by-one, rallygoers discarded the carefully crafted signs that had been thrust high into the air during the demonstration.

By the time Northeastern University professor Nathan Felde and a group of colleagues stumbled upon the signs later that evening, the collection had evolved into a makeshift art installation along the fence line of the park.

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But as city workers prepared to throw away the signs, the scholars decided they couldn’t let the material go to waste — the handmade messages were not meant for the dumpster.

So they rented a van, gathered as many signs as they could manage with the help of passersby, and drove the placards to a storage facility for safekeeping.

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On Monday, Felde and members of Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media, and Design will meet with archivists and staff from the school’s Snell Library to begin preserving the items.

The plan is in its early stages, but organizers hope to keep the signs for the historical record, so they can be studied, curated, exhibited, and perhaps published online or in books.

“The imagery and how people constructed the messages, it’s just a wealth of really interesting stuff to study,” said Felde, a professor of design. “It’s an incredible collection of creative efforts. Some of them are absolutely charming.”

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Saturday’s demonstration was one of more than 600 held around the world. The day started with more than an hour of speeches from politicians and activists before protesters hit the streets for a 1-mile march.

The massive crowds were awash with pink knitted hats and emotional and humorous signs that were both politically driven and brutally honest.

Alone, each sign held a powerful message. But together, the images and slogans scribbled onto the neon-colored posterboards, white paper, and scraps of cardboard told a story about the daylong event that had attracted roughly 175,000 people to the heart of the city.

Volunteers packed as many protest signs as they could manage into a rented van in hopes of preserving the messages for a historical record at Northeastern University.

Dietmar Offenhuber

Volunteers packed as many protest signs as they could manage into a rented van in hopes of preserving the messages for a historical record at Northeastern University.

“It’s a very historic moment, and it is a kind of unique collective expression of a collective action,” said Dietmar Offenhuber, an assistant professor of art and design at Northeastern, and one of the people who was with Felde as they loaded the truck with more than 1,000 signs.

“You saw some very traditional protest signs that have been around since the 1960s, but then you saw some references to Princess Leia, and Star Wars, and Harry Potter,” he said of the array.

When Felde reached out to library staff from Northeastern about the project, they were immediately on board.

“We had to make a decision late last night, which was an easy one: Yes, let’s preserve it,” said Patrick Yott, associate dean of libraries at Northeastern. “Certainly we see this as a cultural memory, and it’s imperative to collect this sort of material.”

The first plan of action, Yott said, is to get the signs out of storage and then decide which ones can be salvaged. Then, they’ll start thinking about how to stabilize the material.

At a minimum, he said, they want to make sure this record of Boston’s past is on file.

“Whether we decide to digitize it and put it with collections of similar materials from across the country is a longer term goal,” he said.

Organizers of the Boston Women’s March said they were honored that archivists decided to come together to memorialize the momentous occasion.

“When we marched in solidarity . . . we made history,” the group said in a statement. “Thousands of people will be able to share this moment with their children and grandchildren.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.
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