One year later, many are still reeling from the events of January 6, 2021, when an insurrectionary pro-Trump mob violently stormed the US capitol to block the certification of the electoral vote. As the nation continues to process the nightmarish riot, so too does the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which announced that it is continuing to add material collected from the Capitol riot to its collection. Despite impediments posed by COVID-19 restrictions and ongoing criminal investigations into the events by a special committee and law enforcement agencies, the Smithsonian has collected around 80 artifacts in total over the past year — items ranging from signs and stickers to a slashed bulletproof vest and multipurpose whip.
The majority of the abandoned objects were gathered at the National Mall in DC on January 7, 2021, as part of the museum’s rapid-response collecting protocol. After securing approval, Frank Blazich, the Smithsonian’s curator of military history, scoured the area, digging through trash to gather historic material — including a variety of placards, flag fragments, and a wooden pole brandished as a weapon — that he carried to his vehicle for eventual transport to the museum.
“I returned several times to fill the trunk of my car, working automatically rather than attempting to digest the various messages and symbology of the objects,” Blazich wrote in a February 2021 blog post about the experience. “As a curator of military history, I felt contextualizing the political nature of these potential artifacts was best left to my political history colleagues.”
Since the Capitol attack, additional banners, signs, flags, and stickers have been donated by members of “Operation Clean Sweep,” a concerted effort to clean up the post-riot site initiated on January 10 by a veterans’ group. In addition to declaring allegiance to Trump, the ephemera collected promoted the neo-fascist group Proud Boys; denounced the anti-fascist movement Antifa; and promulgated religious beliefs.
Also collected in the weeks and months following the riot were National Guard insignia, as well as lapel pins and patches from other law enforcement also called upon to guard the Capitol perimeter for 75 nights after the riot. These items indicate the presence of a wide variety of law enforcement groups, including the United States Secret Service, the New York Police Department, Capitol Police, Army National Guard units from throughout the US, and the United States Forces in Afghanistan. Noah Savoy, a young boy living in Capitol Hill, regularly brought snacks and sodas to the personnel on guard, who gifted him the assorted patches in return; his parents Peter and Kassie Savoy donated the items on Noah’s behalf.
A cobalt suit belonging to Democratic representative Andy Kim is another highlight in the newer crop of items. Kim donned the suit, which he purchased at J. Crew’s holiday sale, for the presidential election certification. The New Jersey congressman hid in his office with the door barricaded for eight hours as the insurrection unfolded. When it was quelled and he emerged, Kim got on his knees to pick up some of the debris in the Capitol Rotunda. An image of the lawmaker cleaning the mess in his blue suit went viral, prompting the Smithsonian to reach out to him requesting that he donate the suit. Kim expressed his hope that his young sons would one day see the suit on display at the museum.
Claire Jerry, the Smithsonian’s political history curator and the lead curator on this collecting initiative, explained to Hyperallergic how acquisitions decisions are made when an event is so fresh: “When collecting from a contemporary event, curators are looking for ways in which the material culture reflects the existing collections of the museum and how it demonstrates unique aspects of the event unfolding. We are making our best judgments, based on our experience and our current collections, of what objects, words, or symbols will, over time, come to represent the event.”
Jerry continued: “But the collecting doesn’t happen solely when an event is fresh. As interpretations develop, as investigations draw to a close, as the historic narrative emerges, and as objects are discovered or become available, Smithsonian curators will decide what to add to the collection for decades to come.”
“The events of January 6 both stand alone and within the context of other national stories including the 2020 election, the impeachment hearings, the 2021 inauguration, and the global pandemic,” said Jerry. “They will also be part of what shapes political and social events moving forward, some we can likely anticipate, others as yet unknown. This collection is part of telling the complicated, messy, and sometimes difficult narrative of the nation’s history.”