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Occupy movement's artifacts highly sought by archivists

Occupy Wall Street may still be working to shake the notion it represents a passing outburst of rage, but some establishment institutions have already decided the movement's artifacts are worthy of historic preservation.

More than a half-dozen major museums and organizations from the Smithsonian Institution to the New-York Historical Society have been avidly collecting materials produced by the Occupy movement.

Staffers have been sent to occupied parks to rummage for buttons, signs, posters and documents. Websites and tweets have been archived for digital eternity. And museums have approached individual protesters directly to obtain posters and other ephemera.

The Museum of the City of New York is planning an exhibition on Occupy next month.

"Occupy is sexy," said Ben Alexander, who is head of special collections and archives at Queens College in New York, which has been collecting Occupy materials. "It sounds hip. A lot of people want to be associated with it."

To keep established institutions from shaping the movement's short history, protesters have formed their own archive group, stashing away hundreds of cardboard signs, posters, fliers, buttons, periodicals, documents and banners in temporary storage while they seek a permanent home for the materials.

"We want to make sure we collect it from our perspective so that it can be represented as best as possible," said Amy Roberts, a library and information studies graduate student at Queens College who helped create the archives working group.

The archives group has been approached by institutions seeking to borrow or acquire Occupy materials. Roberts said they are discussing donating the entire collection to the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Tamiment declined to comment.

The library's collection is among the country's oldest of materials on socialism, communism and social protest movements in the United States.

A handful of protesters began camping out in September in a lower Manhattan plaza called Zuccotti Park, outraged at Wall Street excess and income inequality; they were soon joined by others who set up tents and promised to occupy "all day, all night." Similar camps sprouted in dozens of cities nationwide and around the world. Many were forcibly cleared.

Much of the frenzied collection by institutions began in the early weeks of the protests. In part, they were seeking to collect and preserve as insurance against the possibility history might be lost -- not an unusual stance by archivists.

What appears to be different is the level of interest from mainstream institutions across a wide geographic spectrum and the new digital-only ventures that have sprung up to preserve the movement's online history.

The lavish attention poured on the liberal-leaning movement has not gone unnoticed by conservatives.

Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, blogged sarcastically under its "Corruption Chronicles" about the choice by the Smithsonian to document Occupy.

"It looks like it's taxpayer-funded hoarding, as opposed to rigorous historical collecting," said Tom Fitton, president of the organization. The Smithsonian said its American history collection also now includes materials related to the massive tea party rally against health care reform in March 2010 and materials from the American Conservative Union's Washington, D.C., conference in February.

Curators and those in charge of collections at institutions said it was not too soon to think about preserving elements of the Occupy movement. "We like to collect things as they are happening before the artifacts go away," said Esther Brumberg, senior curator of collections for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History gave a similar explanation for sending staff to Zuccotti Square during the encampment, where they were spotted picking up materials. The museum said it was part of its tradition of documenting how Americans participate in a democracy. "Historians like to take the long view and see how things play out," said spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig in an email, adding that staff wouldn't feel "comfortable" discussing the protests until some time had passed.

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