Objects from Capitol attack collected by Smithsonian for museum archive

Museum curators have gathered materials, including signs and flags, as part of historical record

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After a violent pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, museum curators were quick to pick up what they left behind.

Discarded signs, stickers, flags and other ephemera are among the objects that curators at the National Museum of American History, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, have been collecting to add to their archive.

"As an institution, we are committed to understanding how Americans make change," said Anthea M Hartig, the museum's director, in a statement. She said that the museum's Division of Political and Military History has been documenting the 2020 election and now "will include objects and stories that help future generations remember and contextualise January 6 and its aftermath".

She also asked the public to save and share materials "that could be considered for future acquisition" and could help educate future generations about the event. The museum also collected material, such as signs and banners, from the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

The objects that have been collected from the Capitol Hill riot were those found in the National Mall. One of the museum’s curators, Frank Blazich, found a sign that read: “Off with their heads – stop the steal”.

Inside the Capitol , a federal investigation is under way following the death of five people during the attack. Questions too have been raised about how rioters were able to breach the building’s security.

Authorities are also clearing up the damage and gathering left-behind objects as those who forced their way in smashed windows, vandalised offices and destroyed property. The clean-up by Capitol staff will include removing graffiti, as well as dealing with residue from pepper spray, tear gas and fire extinguishers.

Several items have gone missing, including laptops from senators’ offices, as well as official records. Historical objects were also stolen, seemingly taken as souvenirs by people like Adam Christian Johnson, who was photographed carrying the House Speaker’s lectern. The lectern and gavel were eventually recovered intact.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump protester carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results.   Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP
A man later identified as Adam Johnson carries the lectern of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on January 6 in Washington, DC. AFP

Congress' art collection did not endure direct significant damage, but a representative for the Committee on House Administration told The Washington Post that seven historically significant art pieces were covered in "corrosive agent residue", including a marble statue of former president Thomas Jefferson and portraits of James Madison and John Quincy Adams. The items are now with the Smithsonian for assessment and restoration.

Other objects from inside the Capitol, including damaged name plates, will also be shared with national museums.

Jane Campbell, a historian and president of the US Capitol Historical Society, a nonprofit educational organisation, is creating an archive of her own, collating first-person accounts, videos and social media posts as a form of digital documentation.

"As a historian I want everything preserved," she told the Post. "I think the people who did the attack on the Capitol are insurrectionist, immoral and bad news all the way around … but if they left stuff behind, it should be preserved and studied later. We have to look at, 'What did we learn?' "