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A 1996 Democratic National Convention delegate’s cheesehead hat, a 19th-century voting machine, and a 1960 “Click with Dick” Richard Nixon campaign metal clicker toy are just some of the objects housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) Campaign Collection. Every presidential election cycle, the museum’s political history curators Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Claire Jerry, and Jon Grinspan hit the campaign trail, gathering banners, buttons, and other novelties from across partisan lines. But then the pandemic happened.
In anticipation of an unusual election night and beyond, Graddy, Jerry, and Grinspan share thoughts on their new (slower) practice of “cold-call collecting,” and the role historians play in contextualizing the electoral process.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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Hyperallergic: Typically, you’re out in the field, seeing what voters are doing. What’s it like working remotely during this election?
Lisa Kathleen Graddy: My first campaign with the Smithsonian was 1996. I happened to live in Maryland, so I was dispatched to Annapolis [for] the Ross [Perot] campaign. I was in basecamp while our [Senior Curator] Larry Bird and [Curator Emeritus] Harry Rubinstein were out at the conventions. I’m not entirely sure we had cell phones then. It was contact points at specific times in the day, getting phone calls back and forth to ask about something: check on this, do we have one of these? Did you see this on television?
What’s interesting now is the rapidity with which we’re doing things, it’s slowing down again. There’s a delay as for everyone with everything in COVID [and] no instant gratification.
Claire Jerry: It’s one thing to be at a campaign rally, and see how people are using signs, and what kind of buttons are popular. Now we’re not really seeing individual people in the same way. It’s hard.
Jon Grinspan: It was almost too easy to collect in-person because there was such good will for the Smithsonian. That you could go up to many, many people, and get a huge raft of objects that you maybe later didn’t want all of. There was such interest and engagement. But I do agree with what Lisa and Claire are saying that operating through the internet has made us a little more discriminating, and think more like a historian.
CJ: We’re able to see this election maybe the way we see the elections of the past that we’re still collecting for, but didn’t experience in-person.
H: In no longer accessing large social settings, and allowing that to inform the objects you gravitate towards, how do you approach collecting now?
LKG: It’s amazing how much space is in your head. You walk through all of these events, look at what’s physically in front of you, and run it against a mental inventory of all the storage cabinets, and what we have already. In some ways the criteria is very much the same: are the things in front of me for this election? How do they relate to the pieces of prior elections?
CJ: We’re always looking at the produced, mass manufactured versus the individual reflection of the event. How does the voter reflect that? That’s probably one of the things we’re missing a bit. I know during some of the primaries, Jon and I were in New Hampshire, I was in South Carolina a couple of times, and all of sudden, we weren’t anywhere. And here was this important Wisconsin primary, and we’re having to rely on what we’re seeing in the media. So you’re tracking photographs and newspapers and things online [but] missing that ability to see the individual reflecting themselves.
H: Jon, you recently contributed New York Times op-eds on 19th-century historical precedents for pandemic campaigning and even stolen elections. What’s a public historian’s responsibility during this political moment?
JP: We as historians, and as people who are trying to connect the past to the present for the public, really want to get away from the sense that the American democracy is hurdling off in unprecedented directions. We’re always looking for anchors in the past in the collection and in historical records to give context to this moment. Even if it’s not the same, even if it’s fundamentally different, just to fight that sense that we’ve entered some unseen moment in American history.
H: In June, [three Smithsonian museums] released a press release regarding the collection of protest ephemera at Washington’s Lafayette Square, a site where thousands protested police brutality and the killing of George Floyd before Trump ordered a violent clearing for his “law and order” photo op. Has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted election materials?
CJ: I don’t know if we’ve seen a shift specifically on a campaign button that says BLM for insert-candidate’s-name-here kind-of thing. But one of the great things about [NMAH’s] Division [of Political History] is that we have a long history of collecting reform and protest movements, so the BLM collecting was a natural part of what we already do.
JG: I think the combination of the pandemic, the BLM protests, and the increased focus on democracy is that there’s a greater interest in the immediacy and significance of history with the American public.
LKG: People are looking for touchstones in the past […] More and more, they’ll start saying, well, has anything like this happened at any point in time? Has there ever been a contested election? Can you tell me a president that this went on with?
CJ: It’s amazing to me how many opportunities we’ve had to say, ‘well actually, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to give an acceptance address outdoors,’ or ‘this isn’t the first time when candidates weren’t in the same room.’
LKG: We were talking at one point about the fact that you knew who won on election night. That’s reasonably new. That’s not how it always was. You had to wait weeks to know who actually won the election.
H: Back to how your work has become a form of slow curation, and the now limited direct contact with potential donors. How are you navigating that trust-building remotely?
CJ: I’ve actually done my first, what I would call, ‘cold call’ collection, where I’ve maybe seen somebody had an object that was in a newspaper photograph and they were identified. So I found a way to get in touch. Like Jon was saying before, people are still excited to get an email from the Smithsonian.
LKG: It takes us a little while, but we’ll call you back. We’ll talk to you about that thing. So people bring us their objects and their stories, and we try to help them.
CJ: People will call us and say, ‘hey, my grandmother used this object, or my grandmother collected buttons. Do you want to talk?’ And it’s pretty common for us to find something, even if somebody just opened the junk drawer.
JG: Everybody knows that this is a big historical moment, so people aren’t going to be throwing away their objects. They’re going to be getting in touch for years to come. People bring things from 1968, from World War II, from the Spanish Flu. They’re moments that people know are of huge historical significance. The election, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter — 2020 has rolled so many of those in together.
American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith is ongoing at Smithsonian National Museum of National History (Constitution Avenue, NW between 12th and 14th Streets, Washington, DC). The exhibition is curated by Lisa Katherine Graddy, Barbara Clark Smith, Harry Rubenstein, and Larry Bird.