MILWAUKEE — Curating tangible artifacts for an event that was virtual is a tough task. However, that's exactly what the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History curators are tasked to do for the Democratic National Convention.
Normally, political history curators Lisa-Kathleen Graddy and Claire Jerry would be at the DNC in-person eyeing pins, hats, and banners they think would be worthy of preservation. But the DNC is virtual. Graddy and Jerry aren't even in Milwaukee.
"We want to be able to save that and document it so the whole conversation is a recorder for history," Graddy said about why collecting these political artifacts is important.
How will the virtual DNC be documented? Without crowds of people coming to Milwaukee donning political paraphernalia, historians have to come up with different ways to get those ~tangible~ political artifacts. pic.twitter.com/ehgq1pTsRm— James Groh (@JamesGroh_) August 20, 2020
"The material artifacts are the only tangible evidence we have of historic moments that people have lived and experienced, and this is the way they understood it at the time," Jerry added.
These objects offer a glimpse into the past that allows us to understand the context of the times.
But with no vendors selling pins, and the Wisconsin Center being devoid of crowds, it's harder to find those unique 2020-coronavirus-pandemic-Democratic-National-Convention items.
Although, just because political junkies aren't flocking to Milwaukee donning DNC gear from head to toe, doesn't mean they haven't been wearing them. It turns out, these would-be DNC attendees have a lot in common with sports fans watching a game at home.
"Even people on T.V. are going to hold their sign and show their button," Graddy said.
It's all to say, Graddy and Jerry are paying extremely close attention to the DNC broadcasts.
The two political history curators are creating a shopping list of interesting items they see while watching coverage of the event. They see something they find interesting, they write it down.
"We're keeping an eye for the things that have consistency across time. So we're still looking at buttons. We're still looking at signs, and then we're keeping our eye out for what has been distinctive," Jerry said.
On Friday, the two will compare notes and then devise a plan to track down the items.
In past conventions and primaries, Graddy and Jerry would see an item they thought interesting, walk up to the person who owned it, and strike up a conversation about it. That's not possible with a virtual event. Instead, the two are tasked with calling, emailing, and using social media to get a hold of the political artifact owners.
This means it might take a little longer for the artifacts to go from owner to curator to registered and documented in the Smithsonian.
It should be mentioned that the DNC has an apparel shop on their website. Also, the Visit Milwaukee created and handed out some DNC themed pins. Now, they are for sale.
You've been asking where to get our #DemConvention buttons...we just put a VERY LIMITED quantity of button + mask packs up for sale! Show your support for Milwaukee and commemorate the most unconventional @DemConvention yet. Order now: https://t.co/TTlh9glp4k pic.twitter.com/Hu54ZQji2S— visitmilwaukee (@visitmilwaukee) August 20, 2020
This has been a DNC that nobody anticipated one year ago. Just as those who produced and worked on the DNC in real-time had to change their game plan so too must the historians who lock it away in the history books.