More than two months after the Women’s March in Boston, volunteers who salvaged more than a thousand signs from the protest laid them out on the floor of a South Boston warehouse, covering about 15,000 square feet of space.
“You could study these forever,” said Northeastern University professor Nathan Felde Saturday afternoon, watching colleagues step carefully through the sea of signs. “They’re so rich because they’re so unique.”
After laying them across the floor, volunteers gathered each sign to be individually photographed, catalogued, and digitized for yet-to-be-specified research purposes — but the volunteers had plenty of ideas already.
Staring out at the mosaic of signs on the warehouse floor, Northeastern University staffers Sarah Sweeney and Gail Matthews-DeNatale brainstormed research ideas: literary references, political movements, whether the signs would make sense to someone disengaged with American politics and culture.
“What would be great is if we could tell a story about the posters from the Boston march, but then also link that to whatever research is happening for the other marches too,” said Sweeney, a digital repository manager for Northeastern’s Snell library. “... What are the common themes, and what are unique to those particular geographic locations?”
After the cataloguing process, Northeastern will select some signs to be kept at the university, with the others likely being sent to a yet-to-open private museum in New York City dedicated to posters, according to Felde.
“It’s important to catch something that is ephemeral ... a collective, public, graphic expression in an age where most of the rhetoric is online,” said Felde, an organizer of the project. “Appearing in public with a sign that says what you’re thinking is a pretty courageous move.”
Most of the couple dozen volunteers at the warehouse were Northeastern employees or students, though strangers e-mailed organizers asking to join in. For some who weren’t able to attend the march, it was a way to participate after the fact; for others who did attend the march, it was a way of preserving the energy from that day.
“You just wish you could bottle it!” said Mary V. Judge, an artist from Wakefield who participated in the march. “And this is a way that you can bottle it.”
Signs ranged from to the localized (“Make America wicked smaht again”), to famous quotes (“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything,” attributed to Malcolm X), to the pointed (“Hey white women, 53% of you have some explaining to do”).
“Women’s rights are human rights” was a popular slogan on the signs. Many referenced Hillary Clinton: “I’m with her” accompanied by arrows pointing in every direction, and “More Americans chose Hillary.”
Political issues making frequent appearances included reproductive rights, climate change, immigration, and Black Lives Matter.
Scores featured riffs on Trump’s words, including his “small hands” non sequitur during a Republican debate, his “nasty woman” comment about Clinton, and his infamous statement about grabbing women.
Other signs had no text at all. Felde and others showed one of their favorites: a drawing of two safety pins — a symbol of support for those affected by Trump’s rhetoric and policies — linked in a heart shape against a yellow, orange, and pink background.
The Boston Women’s March, one of more than 600 protests held around the world on Jan. 21, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, drew more than 175,000 to Boston Common. As the march wound down, protesters left their signs along fences.
Felde, along with Dietmar Offenhuber and Alessandra Renzi — fellow professors at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design — said they immediately realized the importance of preserving and archiving the signs when they came upon the impromptu gallery after attending the march.
The signs would otherwise have been thrown out by city workers cleaning up garbage after the march.
After receiving permission from officials to save the signs, Felde rented a white Zipcar van. The group, along with help from passersby, stuffed the van so full they could barely close the doors.
“It was destined,” said Judge. “There was too much positive energy that day for these signs to be trashed.”