'Clear attack on our democracy': US museums respond to Capitol siege - Museums Association

‘Clear attack on our democracy’: US museums respond to Capitol siege

Calls for action against white supremacy as National Museum of American History launches collecting drive
Chiara Wilkinson
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Pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the US Capitol building on 6 January
Pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the US Capitol building on 6 January Creative Commons: Anuska Sampedro

Cultural institutions in America have been reacting to the seismic events of 6 January, when a crowd of pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC on the day that Congress certified Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) issued a joint statement in response to the attack, saying: “The violence and chaos that ensued in our nation’s capital on January 6 was horrifying and reprehensible, and a clear attack on our democracy and society propagated by deliberate deception and misinformation from elected officials.”

The statement continued: “There is no doubt that systemic racism and the consistent downplaying of the threat of white supremacy in the United States allowed for the security breach on the Capitol, a museum itself, to take place.”

The AAM called for museums to step up in the battle against white supremacy and disinformation through education, empathy, and amplifying marginalised voices. It said: “As interpreters and educators of history and culture, museums and museum professionals have the power to uphold democracy and democratic norms, call out bigotry and hate, and fight for racial justice.”

In addition to breaching the barricades of the Capitol, looting furniture and damaging the historic building, the demonstrators also defaced a bust of the 12th US president, Zachary Taylor. One protestor was pictured stealing a lectern in an image that quickly went viral.

The rioters could face significant consequences for the destruction they caused due to an executive order signed by Donald Trump in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year, authorising “up to 10 years in prison” for anyone who vandalises or destroys federal property. 

As museum professionals evaluate the extent of damage to the Capitol’s collections, curators from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History have started collecting objects from the far-right rallies on the National Mall. 

An image of the Nation Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History has called on the public to submit protest materials from the Capitol Siege for future collections
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Signs, posters, and other artefacts from the demonstrations will be archived in future collections from the museum’s division of political and military history. In a statement released following the siege, the museum’s director Anthea M Hartig said that the objects and stories collected will “help future generations remember and contextualise January 6th and its aftermath”.

Calling on the public to save any found objects or ephemera from the riots to consider for future museum acquisitions, Hartig encouraged people to email photos and descriptions of objects to the museum’s 2020 Election Collection desk.

The museum launched a similar public call-out to collect demonstration materials from the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, as well as an expedition to gather first-hand accounts of the year’s events for its Stories of 2020 time capsule.

Following the clean-up of the Capitol, officials from the National Museum of American History are looking to work with authorities and the curator for the Architect of the Capitol federal agency to gather further materials and documents from inside the building.

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