Where Did That Sign Go?

Museums to exhibit Women’s March signs, preserving local history

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More than 200,000 marchers occupied Oakland, San Francisco and San José for the

Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral

Women’s March on Jan. 21, and the marchers’ hands were not empty. Protest signs took center stage both across the globe and here in Santa Cruz.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) recognized the signs’ popularity and importance and created a Women’s March sign archive to preserve local history just days after the march. About 10,000 individuals — according to Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) — flooded downtown Santa Cruz with politically and emotionally charged signs.

The archive, so far, consists of about 50 signs from donors ranging from age 5 to 65. One 5-year-old boy donated a sign that said “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” Another resident donated one with an orange tiger roaring “Together we Roar” in vibrant pink.

Santa Cruz is one of at least 673 official cities that participated in sister marches simultaneous with the Women’s March in the nation’s capital. The exhibit’s goal is to showcase Santa Cruz’s active political environment through local cultural artifacts.

“There were thousands of people marching in downtown Santa Cruz,” said the MAH’s curator of collections and creator of the Women’s March sign archive Marla Novo. “It was the biggest protest of this county’s history, so that’s something worth collecting and archiving.”

Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral

The MAH, however, isn’t the only museum inspired by all the signs at the Women’s March. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Newberry Library in Chicago asked marchers for sign donations via Twitter.

These institutions, like the MAH, seek to preserve the march’s authenticity which was fueled by individual creativity.

UC Santa Cruz first-year student Megan Schouweiler participated in the Santa Cruz Women’s March with a sign to resist President Trump’s policies against women’s bodies, such as defunding Planned Parenthood. Schouweiler’s sign is the fusion of a female body’s front waist and hip silhouette and the scales of justice. The word “justice” is written across the waist.

“Rather than just marching and yelling, writing it down and turning it into artwork solidifies your message,” Schouweiler said.

While marchers largely used visual tactics to get their message heard, the amount of cardboard and paper used posed a concern for city cleanliness and the protest’s environmental impact.

The director of policy and communications for San Francisco Public Works, Rachel Gordon, who facilitates citywide street cleaning recalls how the march was a “well-organized and respectful event.”

San Francisco is no stranger to large demonstrations, such as the annual San Francisco Pride Parade, which attracted over a million people last year. San Francisco Public Works was prepared and equipped to clean the streets after the 100,000 Women’s March attendees cleared.

Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral

“Some worked through the night,” Gordon said. “But we got the city back in good shape by early [Sunday] afternoon.”

Although San Francisco and Santa Cruz marches were on largely different scales, neither had any reported incidents of hoards of signs being left in gutters or littering the streets.

“It was a very successful event,” said Santa Cruz Public Works Department community relations specialist Janice Bisgaard. “No issues whatsoever.”

Marla Novo, one of the MAH’s exhibit curators, received countless emails from Santa Cruz residents requesting the MAH collect the many signs from the march.

These emails and other institutions asking for sign donations, like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, inspired her to start collecting and cataloging.

She’s gathering data about individual marchers by creating a questionnaire with questions like “description of sign(s)” and “why did you march?” It also included demographic inquiry, like ethnicity/race, gender and age.

“We might have an idea of who marched and why they marched,” Novo said. “But then to really hear it from the people, it’s more amazing.”

Despite construction obstructing the museum’s entrance from street view, the archive grew from 30 to 50 signs in about two days.

Novo asked Alia McDaniel, UCSC third-year history major and frequent volunteer for the MAH, to help administer and catalog the influx of signs.

Although McDaniel did not participate in the Santa Cruz Women’s March, she started at the MAH so she could put her love for history and the community into action by preserving history.

Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral

“A lot of UCSC students are just passersby. They go to school for about four to five years and then they leave [Santa Cruz],” McDaniel said. “I wanted to inject myself into the community more and get to know the people here and how they interact with each other.”

The exhibit is set to open soon. Novo, however, explains that even after the opening, sign donations are always welcome.

“Activism means being passionate, being vocal, and surrounding yourself with community for a just cause,” Novo said. “These signs illustrate that.”