When a far-right insurrectionist mob stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, lawmakers abruptly ended their session and fled to secure locations, many in fear for their lives. Dozens were injured that day, and five people, including a police officer who was beaten by rioters, died as a result of the attack.
In the wake of the insurrection, stories both heroic and insidious have revealed new insights on how those six hours of chaos unfolded. Now, reports Cristina Marcos for the Hill, Farar Elliott, a curator in the House of Representative’s Office of History and Preservation, and Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton are shedding light on another aspect of the attack: namely, its toll on the building’s artworks.
As Elliott said in prepared testimony earlier this week, 535 of the 13,000 artifacts housed in the House’s art collections were on display throughout the Capitol complex on January 6.
“During the riot,” the curator told a House subcommittee, “courageous staffers saved several important artifacts.”
One quick-thinking clerk saved an 1819 silver inkstand, the oldest object in the legislative chamber. Staff also rescued the House’s ceremonial silver mace, which was created in 1841 to replace one destroyed when the British burned the Capitol in 1814—one of the only other times that the seat of government has faced violence of this magnitude, as Sarah Cascone points out for Artnet News.
All told, Elliott said, eight artworks—six sculptures and two paintings—were vandalized in the attack. Chemicals present in fire extinguishers, pepper spray, bear repellants, tear gas and other irritants used by rioters caused the majority of the damage. (Per Blanton’s testimony, staffers raced to the roof of the building to reverse airflows and try to limit the damage inflicted by these chemicals.) House curators have requested $25,000 in emergency funding to cover the costs of restoration and repair.
Assessing the damage
The morning after the riot, Capitol staff arrived on the scene to take stock of the damage. Per Blanton’s testimony, they found graffiti, shattered glass and debris from broken furniture, and blue paint tracked through the hallways, among other remnants of the violence. Two of the fourteen historic Frederick Law Olmsted lamps that decorate the Capitol grounds were “ripped from the ground,” Blanton said.
As Elliott testified, the artifacts featured in an ongoing exhibition about Joseph Rainey, the U.S.’ first black congressman, sustained no damage. The four giant John Trumbull paintings that grace the Capitol Rotunda and the fresco that decorates its ceiling, Apotheosis of Washington, also escaped the violence unscathed, reported Sarah Bahr for the New York Times in January.
Curators noted that some objects in the corridors adjacent to the House chamber doors were covered in a fine powder residue. The team collected samples of this powder from a marble bust of Speaker James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark and sent them to the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, which identified the material as discharge from a nearby fire extinguisher. The residue contains yellow dye, silicone oil and other chemicals that could wreak long-lasting damage on the fragile historic objects, according to Elliott’s testimony.
The artworks and their history
In a strange twist of fate, one of the damaged marble busts depicts a man involved in another violent incident at the Capitol: Speaker of the House Joseph W. Martin. The Massachusetts politician was on the House floor on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the public viewing galleries, wounding five people. Martin declared Congress in recess as he took cover behind a marble pillar on the rostrum.
“Bullets whistled through the chamber in the wildest scene in the entire history of Congress,” the speaker later recalled.
Other damaged works included marble busts of Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon and Speaker Thomas Reed, a bronze bust of Chippewa statesman Be sheekee, and a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Chemical traces also left residue on two painted portraits of presidents James Madison and John Quincy Adams, who is depicted in 1848, toward the end of his life. Curators placed all of the affected works beneath museum-grade plastic to prevent further damage.
Cannon, a Republican representative from Illinois known as “Uncle Joe,” wielded unprecedented power in the early 20th century as both chair of the Rules Committee and speaker. His influence was such that representative George Norris actually led a “revolt,” convincing members of both parties to strip Cannon of much of his power in 1910.
Be sheekee, a powerful Chippewa chief also called Buffalo or the Great Buffalo, is known for negotiating a land cessation treaty with the U.S. government. In 1855, he and 15 other Native Americans, including Aysh-ke-bah-ke-ko-zhay (or Flat Mouth), traveled from present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. There, the leaders sat for Francis Vincenti, a little-known Italian sculptor. (The original Vincenti work resides in the U.S. Senate collections; this bust is an 1858 copy by Joseph Lasalle.)
Records show that Vincenti paid Be sheekee $5 for the sitting. Montgomery C. Meigs, an engineer who played a key role in the building and design of the Capitol Rotunda in the late 19th century, likely commissioned the portraits of the Native American men to send overseas as models for Thomas Crawford, an American sculptor working in Rome. Meigs had previously commissioned Crawford to sculpt the pediment for the Senate wing, The Progress of Civilization.
The Be sheekee bust numbers among the few representations of identifiable Native American figures on display in the Capitol. It also speaks to a fraught, painful history: During the era of Manifest Destiny, European colonizers continued to take land from Native groups through treaties or by force. At the same time, many European artists created likenesses of Native people according to their own fixed, racist stereotypes.
“[S]culptors of this period idealized Native Americans in their work and asserted that they were symbolic of the U.S. because they were uniquely American,” says Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), in an email. “Meigs likely arranged for this portrait not because he wanted to commemorate Be sheekee as a sovereign leader, one who traveled to Washington to negotiate important matters on behalf of his people, but rather for its supposed ethnographic value as a record of a ‘vanishing race.’”
Lemmey adds, “One might see the portrait of Be sheekee as satisfying Meigs’s penchant for decorating the Capitol with things he and others regarded as authentically American.”
The road to recovery
As Blanton testified before the subcommittee on Wednesday, the “damage to our precious artwork and statues will require expert cleaning and conservation.”
But while the physical damage wrought by rioters will be fixed over time, the agency head added that the emotional damage will likely remain.
Overall, report Emily Cochrane and Luke Broadwater for the New York Times, Blanton said that the costs of increased mental health services for staff, reinforced security and building restorations will exceed $30 million.
In addition to damaging works of art, rioters left behind broken glass, blood, debris and enduring trauma for all involved. As Elvina Nawaguna and Kayla Epstein noted for Business Insider in January, a custodial staff comprised mostly of people of color was tasked with cleaning up the mess left behind by the overwhelmingly white rioters.
“One of the images that I’m haunted by is the black custodial staff cleaning up the mess left by that violent White supremacist mob. … That is a metaphor for America,” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley told CNN’s Jake Tapper in early February. “We have been cleaning up after violent, white supremacist mobs for generations and it must end.”