852 RARE: From Paper Plates to Sticky Notes, Documenting Student Activism

852 RARE: From Paper Plates to Sticky Notes, Documenting Student Activism

Historical & Special Collections (HSC) has been working hard since the spring of 2016 to collect material that helps tell the story of student life at Harvard Law School (HLS), most recently in the form of the HLS Community Capture Project. Given our focus on archiving student action, it was very exciting to find a nondescript, cardboard box tucked away in the Library’s art office, contained objects from a student protest in 1987.

On the front of the box scribbled in pencil were notes made by Bernice Loss, the School’s first art curator. Loss, a trained artist (and spouse of HLS faculty member Louis Loss) started to look after the School’s art collection in the early 1970s. In 1977, she was named the first HLS art director, later becoming the curator of the art collection and a member of the Library’s Special Collections Department (created in 1985). Loss’ inscription reads: 1987 / Paper Plate Faces / (To protest too many male faces in collection). Inside are more than 50 papers plates with images and slogans written in marker meant to highlight the larger number of white, male portraits and the lack of women and professors of color. According to Loss’ notes, these plates were placed in the hallways of Austin Hall, on books in the Austin Hall north classroom; on the frames of pictures in Langdell Hall; as well as a few other locations on campus.

Piece of paper and 4 plates

A sign and examples of the paper plates recently rediscovered.
Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections

During her tenure, Loss worked to diversify the portrait collection, overseeing the acquisition of portraits of women and people of color including Judge Ruth Abrams (LL.B. 1956), Florence Allen, Clarence Clyde Ferguson, and George Lewis Ruffin (LL.B. 1869). However, then as now, the collection was predominantly made up of portraits of white men.

Like the notes students placed “beside portraits of black faculty, expressing appreciation for their pedagogy, scholarship, and character” in response to the vandalism of photographs of Black faculty members (and later archived by HSC), these paper plates are extremely ephemeral, making it all the more exciting that they have survived more than 30 years. They also raise interesting questions regarding their storage and preservation, as well as the ethics of collecting student protest material. Did students consider what would happen to the plates after they put them up? Were they involved in the transfer of material to the Library? How does one care for paper objects that are more 3-D than flat?

The plates and their accompanying material will now be formally accessioned and made available to anyone who would like to see them.

If you were a student involved in this protest, we would love to hear from you and learn more about this action and how the HLS community responded.

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