WASHINGTON — The cavernous room was dark, except for the soft floodlights, and the glow from a nearby computer screen. A digital camera peered down from above. And Kelly Manno and Amelia Brookins carefully arranged the old Bella Abzug campaign poster to be photographed.

Wait. Bella who?

Neither of the young Smithsonian object handlers knew of the formidable New York feminist and three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Brookins said she had heard of Abzug, who died 21 years ago, for the "first time in the poster."

But the National Museum of American History is now finishing a massive project to digitize 18,000 of its old political and military posters to make them easily accessible and to expand awareness of figures and issues long vanished from the headlines.

Manno and Brookins, both 26, and colleague Thomas English, 31, have been working since December in a makeshift photography studio in the museum, cranking out more than 200 digitized images a day.

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The posters are methodically moved from a to-do pile, to a platform where they are photographed, and then to a "done" pile.

Not all the posters seem obscure. "It's always nice when we get to some that we remember from our living history," Brookins said.

"Our goal is to digitize our collections to make them available online to anybody who has access to the web," said Ken Rahaim, of the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office. "Our goal is to get (people) access to more than just what's on exhibit."

There are so many posters that it "would be impossible for any one person to look through (them) in a practical manner," said Robert Horton, the museum's assistant director for collections and archives. "Making them available online ... raises not just accessibility but the profile and value of the collection."

The Smithsonian said it hopes to have the new images available online by late summer and, with the help of Google's Arts & Culture program, broaden the project's reach and sophistication.

The work is a kaleidoscopic walk through history, touching on, among other things, protests of President Donald Trump, support for the Black Panthers in the 1970s, and propaganda from the First World War.

Some of the posters have been donated by collectors or government agencies. Others have been gleaned by Smithsonian curators who attend rallies, demonstrations and political events, said Sara Murphy, of the museum's division of political and military history.

One of the challenges is knowing what to collect, said Nancy Bercaw, chair of the museum's division of political and military history. "There's so much going on right now," she said. "It's part of our job ... to be able to predict what's going to be lasting."

The images include a giant sign that says "PRESS ROOM," from the 1984 League of Women Voters vice presidential debate in Philadelphia. The debate pitted future President George H.W. Bush against U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate for a major political party.

Another big placard from the same event says "PHOTO OPPORTUNITY."

Kelly Manno, object handler, arranges a poster advertising an event in support of Cesar Chavez and the California grape workers. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.
Kelly Manno, object handler, arranges a poster advertising an event in support of Cesar Chavez and the California grape workers. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

There's a colorful advertisement for a 1968 concert in Carnegie Hall featuring Peter, Paul and Mary and comedian Alan King to benefit California grape workers.

Another, reading "Power to the People," expresses support for the "New York Panther 21," a group of jailed African American activists who were acquitted in 1971 of conspiring to bomb police stations and department stores.

A "Power to the People" poster expresses support for a group of jailed African American activists. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.
A "Power to the People" poster expresses support for a group of jailed African American activists. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

The Bella Abzug poster, in orange, black and white, shows her in one of her trademark hats, along with the slogan "This Woman's Place is in the House ... the House of Representatives!" (The Smithsonian also has one of her hats.)

Amelia Brookins, object handler, arranges a poster of Bella Abzug to be photographed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.
Amelia Brookins, object handler, arranges a poster of Bella Abzug to be photographed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

Abzug was a potent figure, a lawyer, agitator, civil rights champion and pioneering feminist during the bitter culture wars of the 1960s and '70s. She died in 1998.

English, the on-site photographer for the private vendor, Creekside Digital, said it's interesting how some political slogans get repeated over the years.

"We have noticed (in) campaign slogans there's a lot echoes" from the past, he said. "Make X Great Again. The Democratic Party, the this or that. It's recycled."

He said it's also striking to see "a long history of activism" in the posters: "It wasn't a social media invention."

The project also has digitized some stunning French posters from World War I.

In one advertisement for a widows and orphans' benefit, a grieving family is portrayed at the grave of a fallen soldier. A widow kneels with a handkerchief near a wreath that says "Morts Pour La Patrie," Died for the Country, while a blind French comrade in dark glasses salutes in the background.

The poster, by the French war painter Lucien Jonas, lists the date of the event as Sunday, Jan. 21, 1917, and the location as the magnificent old Palais du Trocadero in Paris, now long gone.

Among those scheduled to perform were violinist Emile Mendels, actress Madeleine Roch, and the world-famous Belgian opera singer Jean Note.

Another World War I poster is the famous work by French illustrator Maurice Neumont, "On Ne Passe Pas," They Shall Not Pass.

It shows a ghostly French soldier, his uniform in tatters, rooted in the mud with his rifle and gas mask, against the flaming backdrop of the Battle of Verdun.

Neumont wrote a notation on the poster, "Bois de Vaux-Chapitre Front de Verdun 10/4/17."

That appears to refer to a devastated piece of forest and the site of terrible combat during the months-long battle. Citing French sacrifice, the poster warned of accepting a "paix blanche," or white peace, a weak settlement without complete victory.

In the end, the war was a total victory for France and its allies, as the poster hoped, but left a smoldering bitterness in Germany that would lead directly to World War II.

This article was written by Michael E. Ruane, a reporter for The Washington Post.