The Smithsonian Collects Artifacts from January 6 Insurrection

In an effort to archive all aspects of America’s political life, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is in the process of collecting items from the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building during the counting of the Electoral College votes.

open hatchback of car with sign propped against it reading
A number of signs, banners and other ephemeral items from the rallies and demonstrations on the National Mall January 6 are headed to the collections of the National Museum of American History. 
Photo by Frank Blazich, National Museum of American History curator.

In an effort to archive all aspects of America’s political life, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is in the process of collecting items from the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building during the counting of the Electoral College votes.

In a statement, Anthea M. Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, said, “As an institution, we are committed to understanding how Americans make change. This election season has offered remarkable instances of the pain and possibility involved in that process of reckoning with the past and shaping the future... [Curators] will include objects and stories that help future generations remember and contextualize Jan. 6 and its aftermath.”

Items will be selected from protest signs, American flags and banners, clothing, pamphlets, handouts, and other ephemera, Valeska M. Hilbig, deputy director, Office of Communications and Marketing for the Smithsonian, told LJ.

The items were assembled using rapid response collecting, a relatively new form made popular by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. The V&A opened a gallery dedicated to rapid response collecting in 2014. On its website, V&A describes the practice: “Contemporary objects are acquired in response to major moments in recent history that touch the world of design and manufacturing.” Examples can include a pussy hat from the 2017 Women’s March, a burkini, and wearable tech. Other museums have followed suit in recent years, collecting ephemera and other items to help characterize a social/political movement.

Hilbig told LJ, “Rapid Response collecting happens where materials are in danger [of] getting damage[d] by weather or disposal by trash removal, for example. Hence one [of] our curators went to the national Mall on Jan. 7.”

A press release from the Smithsonian noted, “Our staff adheres to the highest professional ethics in collecting. Following protocols put in place in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the museum’s work may not interfere with any federal or criminal investigations. In addition, in doing this work, the safety of our staff takes priority.”

The effort is in conjunction with the larger work of documenting political events in January, including rallies, the inauguration of President Joe Biden, and the second impeachment of Donald Trump, explained the Smithsonian release. The museum is open to submissions. Said Hilbig, “Collecting will be ongoing as materials become available, and as we are working with the Capitol curator and other federal agencies.” Hilbig noted that “Materials that are not selected for the permanent collection may be made available to other museums or historical associations.”

Dr. David Pilgrim, founder, director, and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and vice president for Diversity, Inclusion, and Strategic Initiatives at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI, has made a mission of collecting upsetting items, notably racist memorabilia from the past through the present day. He explained, “Americans like happy history—narratives that make us look smart, brave, and exceptional. We want a history that has been cherry-picked, one that ignores our mistreatment of the weak and disfavored—a history that can be celebrated at picnics, parades, and in smug conversations. This approach to history is neither honest nor mature. You “need to document what actually happened.”

Pilgrim told LJ he could see the value of collecting items from the insurrection. He quoted activist, folklorist. and writer Stetson Kennedy on collecting signs after desegregation: “I raced around to dumpsters collecting discarded ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ signs, thinking they would be of some interest to posterity in a Museum of Horrors.” Pilgrim told LJ, “Look, what happened on the date [of The Capitol Insurrection], most people would consider a horror. You can see why it would remind me [of that quotation.] If you were trying to document that day, it would help to have some of the material objects.”

Pilgrim believes strongly in the power of objects to teach. “I learned a long time ago, there is a teaching power of objects that is unsurpassed. I can tell stories and that can be powerful; I can give data and that can be powerful, but there is really nothing like letting people see the material evidence of what happened.”

Contextualizing the items will be important, he said. However, the Smithsonian has no plans for display at the moment, said Hilbig.

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Anthony Zrake

That’s welcome news. It’s important that the event be documented as thoroughly as possible, including the lead-up which started even before Election Day. A section on critical thinking, one on gathering news from more than one source, and one on how radicalization can happen, might be worth considering.

Posted : Feb 14, 2021 06:17

Gary Fitsimmons

The Jan. 6th incursion into the US Capitol building cannot be properly put into context without relating it to all of the events of the preceding year or so, such as protests that turned into looting binges and alleged improprieties in the election. Are they collecting artifacts from those as well?

Posted : Feb 04, 2021 08:16



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