Before the Smoke Cleared From the Capitol Riots, Curators Were Out Looking for Artifacts. What Should They Do With Them Now?

The Smithsonian hopes its collection of the highly loaded objects will help preserve the history of that dark day.

A Trump supporter waves a flag as he stands on a government vehicle in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.
A Trump supporter waves a flag as he stands on a government vehicle in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.

A year ago, before the smoke had fully cleared after a group of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building, curators and historians were already grappling with the complicated question of how best to preserve the historical record.

The morning after the attack, Frank Blazich, the National Museum of American History‘s curator of modern military history, made his way to the National Mall, sifting through trash cans for objects of interest.

A number of signs, banners and other ephemeral items from the pro-Trump rallies and demonstrations on the National Mall that led to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, which are headed to the collections of the National Museum of American History. Photo by Frank Blazich, courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Photo by Frank Blazich, courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

The posters, signs, and other ephemera he found were the beginning of a collection that currently numbers 80 items.

This kind of rapid-response collecting has become increasingly common for museums.

“Sometimes you actually know you’re in a time that history is being made—that you’re a part of it, but it’s also happening unto you,” museum director Anthea Hartig told Artnet News. “It’s our near-sacred duty to collect as broadly and thoughtfully as we can to document these intersecting crises.”

Freelance photographer Madeleine Kelly donated this protective vest, in which she was stabbed while documenting the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Freelance photographer Madeleine Kelly donated this protective vest, in which she was stabbed while documenting the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

To that end, the museum has also invited people to donate their January 6 objects, like the protective vest freelance photographer Madeleine Kelly wore while attempting to document the event. It is torn where a woman participating in the riot stabbed Kelly with a knife.

Another donation came from New Jersey Representative Andy Kim: the blue J. Crew suit he was wearing when he was forced to evacuate the Capitol.

And then there are the military patches donated by D.C. local Pat Savoy, who spent three months handing out snacks to the National Guard and other military personnel dispatched to guard the Capitol.

The soldiers, whose units came from all over the country, gave their insignias to Savoy’s toddler son Noah.

Noah Savoy meeting members of the National Guard protecting the Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Savoy family.

Noah Savoy meeting members of the National Guard protecting the Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Savoy family.

Participants in the rally and the attack that followed, on the other hand, have not reached out about donations.

“I would not expect to have those conversations now,” Claire Jerry, the political history curator at the National Museum of American History. “With major events like this, it’s maybe years later that someone comes forward. Sometimes it’s a family member—maybe they’re not proud of what they did, but they recognize the historical significance. I think we will be collecting for January 6 for decades to come.”

Other artifacts will come to the museum as criminal investigations conclude and law enforcement is able to release objects currently being held as evidence.

“Displaying criminality always has to be done very carefully, and always has to have the benefit of time,” Hartig said. “We have a history of working with our partners in federal law enforcement, and there will be a moment where those objects will be converted into a space where they can be considered artifacts.”

Supporters of US President Donald Trump gather on the West side of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Rioters breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynold/AFP via Getty Images.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump gather on the West side of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynold/AFP via Getty Images.

Possible examples include the orange noose that hung from a gallows erected on the lawn in front of the Capitol said to be in FBI custody. A Dutch journalist picked it up with the thought that it belonged at a museum.

While the Smithsonian hasn’t made any arrangements for that particular artifact, objects that speak to racist rhetoric pose especially thorny problems.

“Nooses and the Confederate battle flag, flown inside the U.S. Capitol—those are highly loaded symbols of violence against Black Americans and voter suppression, on a day that was supposed to celebrate a relatively straightforward, peaceful transition of power,” Hartig said.

That same impulse is what inspired the U.S. Capitol Historical Society to launch a “January 6 Oral History Project,” which began conducting interviews late last year.

“The discussion about January 6 and the memory of January 6 had become so partisan, we were afraid we were going to lose the factual memories about what happened on that day,” society president Jane Campbell told Artnet News. “We felt the best way to preserve those memories was to give people the opportunity to share their story.”

The hope is that the society’s oral history will become publicly available in partnership with a university.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump enter the US Capitol's Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.)

Supporters of US President Donald Trump enter the US Capitol’s Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.)

The Smithsonian history museum has no immediate plans to display objects from January 6, but some of the artifacts will likely begin to get cycled into the institution’s existing political displays in years to come.

“Museums collect so we don’t forget,” Hartig added. “We create spaces for conversation where we can explore what it means to uphold the fragility of our democracy—which was on full display that day.”


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