Archiving the January 6 Insurrection for History

The Capitol building fenced off on January 7
The U.S. Capitol building was fenced off on January 7. National Museum of American History

As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is continuing its efforts to preserve historical artifacts from that day.

“Seeing those objects—the homemade, the handmade, whatever they are—and knowing what happened that day and knowing that we are still trying to understand what happened that day, is incredibly powerful,” museum director Anthea Hartig tells Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post. “It will help future generations understand how fragile democracy is, and certainly was that day.”

The attack on the Capitol represented an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, which Trump had falsely claimed was stolen. The violence that took place on the Capitol grounds resulted in five deaths, and, in its wake, four officers involved in the response effort have committed suicide.

Insurrectionists littered the ground with debris and erected a gallows with a noose on the lawn outside the Capitol building.

various handmade signs in back of car
A curator collected signs in the aftermath of the attack. National Museum of American History

On the day following the attack, the Smithsonian’s Frank Blazich, a curator of military history at the museum, canvassed the National Mall for placards and other items left behind by the rioters. 

“Upon the ground were pieces of discarded equipment from an angry, invading force: signs, banners, a red bag of booklets including ‘The Continuing American Revolution,’” wrote Blazich in a blog post last Feburary. “An unknown hand had scratched ‘TRUMP’ in the mud with a stick. I found a sign nearby reading, ‘We’re Right/ We’re Free/ We’ll Fight/ You’ll See.’”

Among the approximately 80 objects now held in the museum’s collections that are related to the event are military insignia from the National Guard troops who guarded the Capitol after the attack, a protective vest worn by freelance photographer Madeleine Kelly, whom a rioter slashed with a knife, and the blue suit worn by Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) while he helped to clean up garbage in the building following the assault.  

Items collected include repurposed metal road signs, one of which reads “Off with Their Heads/Stop the Steal,” words also chanted by rioters, reports MaryAlice Parks for ABC News. 

“Those are heavy signs,” Claire Jerry, curator of political history at the museum, tells ABC. “They clearly took some time to repaint, and someone came with bolts and tools to attach them to street poles. So, they were not walking around carrying those. They wanted them to be someplace where people could see them and presumably thought that they would stay there for a long time.”

repurposed metal road sign reading 'off with their heads stop the steal'
Some participants in the attack fixed repurposed road signs to street poles. National Museum of American History

Religion, curators point out, played a role in the insurrection. The museum, which recently announced the formation of its Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History, is collaborating with the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies. A new website, “Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021,” features essays from scholars and archived digital materials from the insurrection. The site will catalog tweets, videos and FBI files to document how religious beliefs played a role in the attack.

In an introductory essay on the site, Michael J. Altman and Jerome Copulsky, the project directors, write that religion “was not just one aspect of the attack on the Capitol, but, rather, it was a thread that weaves through the entirety of the events of January 6.” 

They argue that many of the rioters displayed symbols related to “Christian Nationalism,” a merging of Christian and American identities, and of political and religious beliefs. While most of the religious symbolism at the event was related to Evangelical Christianity, there were also expressions of Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and New Age, or neopagan spiritualities.

trash can holding an american flag, signs and papers
Materials used during the riots were shoved into a trash can. National Museum of American History

The museum said in a statement that Covid restrictions last year presented challenges in the collection of the artifacts because the museum building was closed to staff at the time. Investigations by law enforcement agencies and the Congressional Select Committee currently underway have also limited what museum officials can collect.

Curators are continuing to gather objects from the attack and are in discussions with photojournalists about obtaining photographs of the event, reports Courtney Bublé Government Executive. While there are no current plans to display the artifacts in a museum exhibition, the objects can be searched and studied using the Smithsonian Institution’s collections search tool.

“Even after passage of a year, the events of January 6, 2021, are still developing a coming into focus,” writes Blazich in a blog post published today. “The emotions from that day are still raw, and the facts of the day continue to come to light. The interpretation of artifacts from January 6 will remain a matter of time and analysis.”

Hartig tells the Post: “If we believe that United States history and teaching it, saving it, preserving it and sharing it can help continue the democratic experiment, which is still one of the longest-running in the history of the world, then it is one of the most challenging times.”

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