How the Smithsonian and Other Museums Are Responding to the U.S. Capitol Riot

Leading institutions have started collecting artifacts and working to contextualize last week’s violent attack

Mob in front of the U.S. Capitol
“A key tenet of ... constitutional democracy is the peaceful transfer of power following U.S. presidential elections, dating back to the republic’s first presidential election,” said Anthea Hartig, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, in a statement. “This week, that core belief was shaken.” Photo by Jon Cherry / Getty Images

Last Wednesday, a mob of far-right insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol, forcing lawmakers to flee for safety and temporarily delaying Congress’ certification of November’s election, which will put Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris in the White House.

Over six hours of chaos, the insurrectionists assaulted law enforcement officers, ransacked offices, stole objects, smashed windows and smeared what appeared to be blood across a bust of President Zachary Taylor. Rioters also erected a wooden gallows near the Capitol Reflecting Pool; footage captured at the scene showed some members of the crowd chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” In total, the attack claimed the lives of five people, including a police officer reportedly struck with a fire extinguisher.

In the wake of the January 6 riot, museums and cultural institutions across the country have responded by condemning the violence, collecting artifacts linked to the attack and beginning to place the events in a historical context.

As Anthea M. Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), said in a Friday statement, “This election season has offered remarkable instances of the pain and possibility involved in [the] process of reckoning with the past and shaping the future. As curators … continue to document the election of 2020, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, they will include objects and stories that help future generations remember and contextualize Jan. 6 and its aftermath.”

Smithsonian curators have already collected dozens of artifacts linked to the attack, reports Zachary Small for the New York Times. These objects include a sign that reads “Off with their heads—stop the steal” and a small handwritten poster that includes the phrase “Trump won, swamp stole.”

Per the Washington Post’s Maura Judkis and Ellen McCarthy, government officials plan on preserving items found inside the Capitol—including stickers, flags and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s damaged name plate—and sharing them with museums, including the Smithsonian.

Members of the public are encouraged to send photos and descriptions of any materials that should be considered for future acquisition to [email protected].

How the Smithsonian and Other Museums Are Responding to the U.S. Capitol Riot
This linen banner celebrated Thomas Jefferson's victory over John Adams in the election of 1800—and the peaceful transition of power that followed. "Two hundred and twenty years after Jefferson was sworn in as president, the vulnerability of this legal and historic handover was revealed," said Hartig. National Museum of American History

According to Hartig, NMAH is committed to documenting “all aspects of the American political experiment: a government by the people.”

The director added, “A key tenet of this constitutional democracy is the peaceful transfer of power following U.S. presidential elections, dating back to the republic’s first presidential election. This week, that core belief was shaken.”

Referencing one of the museum’s treasured political history items—a banner celebrating the outcome of the election of 1800—Hartig noted that John Adams, who lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson, peacefully conceded despite the “bitterly contested” nature of the race.

“At the time and since, the rhythmic certainty of this proud tradition has sparked amazement that any leader would willingly yield their office,” Hartig said. “Two hundred and twenty years after Jefferson was sworn in as president, the vulnerability of this legal and historic handover was revealed.”

In a separate statement, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III noted that he was “appalled by the violence incited by those unwilling to accept the results of a now congressionally certified presidential election and outraged by the diminution of the rule of law and the dishonoring of a symbol of American democracy.”

Bunch added, “As members of an unruly mob brandished the Confederate flag in the halls of Congress, it was a reminder that this was not simply an attack on our democratic institutions, but a repudiation of our shared values. … This moment is a clarion call. We must commit to working across the lines that divide us to make real the nation so many have long dreamed for, a truly beloved community.”

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. made similar statements condemning the attack, reports Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic. The Brooklyn Museum, meanwhile, posted an image of Ed Ruscha’s Our Flag on Instagram alongside a caption stating that “the feelings of fragility and uncertainty evoked in Ruscha’s work were sadly reinforced by yesterday’s [events].” The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Alliance of Museums and a number of national museum associations also released statements regarding the riot.

At the Capitol, curators assessed the damage to their historic workplace, which functions both as the seat of federal government and a museum. Though benches, murals, shutters and other items sustained damage at the hands of rioters or through the accretion of tear gas and pepper spray, Capitol officials tell the New York Times’ Sarah Bahr that the destruction could have been worse: A number of large-scale John Trumbull paintings in the Capitol Rotunda, for instance, escaped relatively unscathed. None of the artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian to the Capitol were damaged in the attack.

Jane Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, tells the Post that Wednesday’s events left her angry and heartbroken. But, she adds, “as a historian I want everything preserved,” including items broken or damaged by the mob.

“I think the people who did the attack on the Capitol are insurrectionist, immoral and bad news all the way around,” Campbell continues, “… but if they left stuff behind, it should be preserved and studied later. We have to look at, ‘What did we learn?’”

Prior to last week, curators and educators across the country had already been working to ensure that key artifacts from 2020—including objects associated with an unprecedented global pandemic, a worldwide push for racial justice and a divisive presidential election—would be preserved for generations to come.

Last summer, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), NMAH and the Anacostia Community Museum began collecting artwork, signs and other memorabilia from Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation following police officers’ killing of George Floyd. As Elliot C. Williams reported for DCist in June 2020, curators collected a number of protest signs that had been posted on a fence around Lafayette Square.

Aaron Bryant, a curator at NMAAHC, said in a statement at the time that he had interviewed and listened to the stories of Black Lives Matter protesters.

“Objects are just metaphors for individual humanities,” he noted. “And behind each humanity is a story and a voice we want to preserve and share.”