How I stumbled into preserving history
01 May 2013 – Stephen Lewis
As a trade union leader and a political activist, I had occasions to attend national and international events. Often, other attendees would bring posters from their respective organizations. I would usually take one of each because I was attracted to either the graphics or the issue or both. After a few years of this, and having obtained a critical mass, I decided to try to raise some modest funds for inexpensive frames and create a couple of exhibits. It seemed a shame to have these interesting posters sitting in my attic.
The project started off modestly as I had a demanding full-time job and other commitments. The number of framed posters began increasing, as did the number of exhibits.
Flash forward 15 years and 4,000 posters later, and I now find myself staging at least three exhibits a month. The themes of the exhibits pretty much identify the content of the posters in the exhibits: May Day, International Women’s Day, Health & Safety, Strike, The 99% Resist, Diversity, Workers’ Struggles, the Struggle for Women’s Equality, the Peace Dove, Anti-Apartheid, Green Politics, Cuban Political Posters, and Art for a Cause. There are more waiting in the wings for funding.
Organizations in many countries use posters as a way to communicate ideas and messages to their audience. Posters are sometimes used as billboards and are pasted on walls, fences, and poles all over a city. Unions sometimes hang posters in work places to warn of dangers, educate about benefits or inspire actions. Posters sometimes use mainly the written word to communicate a message. Other times they rely on creative art to communicate the idea. It is an art form that is easily accessible to many people.
My posters are from many different countries, in a number of languages, and range over the past 60 years. Most were created in print shops, but some were some were done in the field during armed conflict. They range in size. The Italians are particularly fond of large posters.
I’ve learned on the job about what type of frame is easiest to work with, how to frame, how to do placards, places to exhibit, ways to photograph the posters, and other skills to make the exhibits happen. It continues to be a learning process.
Many of my exhibits happen in the public libraries in Massachusetts. I’ve learned that librarians are tenacious defenders of free speech, and that hundreds of people pass through libraries each month. The exhibits have ranged from 20 posters up to 60 posters. It depends on the size of the exhibition space. It is always an experience walking into an exhibit space for the first time. Each one is different and has its own idiosyncrasies. It’s always a challenge making the adaptation.
Most exhibits are viewed by people who self-select attending the particular exhibit or museum. An advantage of exhibiting at public libraries is that people who visit there are not, for the most part, seeking out my exhibit. They are looking for books, music, computers etc., but when they walk in, there are the posters. I have a two-page handout available for people to take away that gives an overview of the theme of the exhibit and a brief bio and contact information about me.
I discovered that I was no longer just a political activist, but also a bit of a historian, when I attended and presented at the 2013 NCPH convention in Ottawa. While some of the minutia presented in workshops was over my head, I was very impressed with the dedication, smartness and personability of my fellow attendees. What might have been helpful at the Ottawa convention, for people like myself, would be a workshop like “Preservation of History for Beginners.” Give attendees five minutes or so to present what they are doing and then receive some brief feedback from a panel of three experts.
While the overwhelming response of people who view my exhibits is favorable, there are some reactionaries who take issue with just the idea of trade unions or find the progressive themes distasteful. They would just as soon make some of those histories vanish. This would be a tragedy for the type of posters I exhibit because for the most part, the history, like culture, that is presented to society, is dominated by the powerful. My exhibits are more about working people, labor unions, people who do not have power but challenge it, and so the ability to commemorate and present these events and issues is much more limited. I think historians need to be conscious about whose history they are presenting, and be prepared to take risks by sometimes challenging the dominant thinking.
~ Stephen Lewis
Anyone interested in communicating about these thoughts or about posters is welcome to contact the author at [email protected].