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Occupy London Is History, At Least To The Museum Of London

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So it's over - Occupy London's camp at St Paul's is history.

But then again, Occupy was history before it was evicted.

That's the case for the Museum of London, who have been collecting artefacts from the camp, including an Occupied Times newspaper and some of the banners that decorated the site.

On 26 March the museum is hosting a discussion hosted by a panel including Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller on how museums should document protest movements - especially when so much of the protest now happens online.

For the museum' director of collections, Cathy Ross, there is no question that Occupy now has a place in London's history.

"We're collecting them as part of the story of London," she explained in an interview before the St Paul's camp was evicted. "And we do have to make a judgement about whether this is a really important event."

Obtaining material from Occupy presents its own challenges, however. For one the majority of the protest and its organisation occurred online, and the museum is now scrambling to hire an online curator to start collecting that material.

Posters from the early days of Occupy London

The movement's leaderless organisation also makes deciding to give anything up pretty challenging.

"Occupy are democratic to a fault," Ross explained. "On a very mundane level for us as a museum to collect things from them there is no one owner, so they have to have lots of meetings to decide collectively whether to give something to the Museum of London or not."

When negotiating with an oral historian to interview some key figures about the protest, Occupy also insisted ("after quite intense discussions") that the recordings be released under a Creative Commons license.

How Occupy London began at St Paul's, October 15 2011

Alongside its historical importance, what makes Occupy appealing to the museum is in part its visual appeal.

Early on in the occupation, which began on 15 October 2011, banners and murals of Monopoly-style bankers, hand-stiched slogans and entertaining, if occasionally baffling, collages were plastered everywhere around the camp.

And then there are the masks.

"If not quite 'protest as lifestyle' there is at least a strong artistic and visual aspect to the protest," Ross says of the camp's unique attempts, particularly early on, to incorporate design and humour into its otherwise inevitably squalid appearance.

"It's not just any old banners with a slogan it's people being very clever about the visual appearance. That's certainly true of Occupy."

Occupy has also arisen out of a London tradition stretching back decades - if not hundreds of years. The protests in East London over an extension to the M11 in the 1990s are one example, Ross said. That protest offered its entire archive to the museum in 1998, and elements of it are now on display in the museum's recently renovated permanent collection.

Some of the people involved in Occupy LSX were also occupying houses on the M11 route more than a decade ago. That consistency may have helped developed Occupy's awareness of its historical legacy.

"I do think they're very concerned with how history sees them," Ross says. "And are a bit self-conscious about how they appear to the outside world."

When histories of Occupy London are written many will be unable to resist comparing them to last summer's London riots, which were also a protest in a sense - albeit of a very different tone and rationale.

The riots reflect the dark history of London's 'mob' culture, Ross says.

"London is at heart an ungovernable city really, there's a lot of people, a lot of tension and the forces of law and order have an unenviable task because it's only here because of the consent of the majority. But as in the case of the riots something can happen to overturn it and it's all pretty alarming."

As for Occupy, they've insisted the St Paul's eviction is not the end of the movement, and the persistence of the Finsbury Square camp will in the short term ensure that is true.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the movement can regroup and regain the momentum that it had in its early days and make history again.

"There are parts of it, like the Tent University which seem to be about ideas and moving forward rather than just sitting in a circle and waggling fingers," Ross said. "They're not going to go away. They'll just mutate into something slightly different."

'Occupation and protest: documenting social unrest' takes place at the Museum of London on 26 March from 7pm to 8.45pm, and costs £6.

St Paul's after the Occupy Protests were evicted on 28 February 2012

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