slack chat

How Do We Preserve Artifacts From the Capitol Attacks?

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

This past weekend, the Washington Post noted that a few artifacts from last week’s riots were already being collected by a Smithsonian curator. That got several Curbed editors wondering what else should be preserved to commemorate this horrible event and how and where it all should be presented. On Monday, news editor Megan Barber (who is trained as a historian), city editor Christopher Bonanos (who has written books about New York history), and architecture critic Justin Davidson got into these questions on Slack.

Megan Barber: I think the impetus to preserve things from this event is spot on, but actually how and what we save is a much more difficult question. This is, first and foremost, a still functioning federal office building.

Justin Davidson: Well, we can save a lot, even if it doesn’t get displayed. The first things that come to mind are the elements that starred in the video record — in some cases, even if they weren’t left at the scene. The zip ties, for example. The gallows. The panel with “Murder the Media.” The broken sign to Nancy Pelosi’s office (which was preserved, reportedly). I think the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is an excellent model of how to deal with an abundance of recent artifacts interlaced with digital artifacts.

M.B.: The visual record for this is abundant, for sure.

J.D.: This is going to have to be told as a story, and it will be contested. Whose story is it?

M.B.: Right. Remembering is always a political act, and we’re talking about how to do it less than a week after a profoundly disturbing event.

Christopher Bonanos: You can imagine this story being told by some people as a story of plucky election-defending protesters, which would be monstrous.

J.D.: Yes, exactly. My criticism of the original planning of the 9/11 Memorial is that it happened too quickly, before the meaning of the event had registered. Now, as then, we don’t know whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end of a story.

C.B.: The catch, of course, is that the people collecting artifacts don’t have the luxury of time. The cleanup started the next day.

J.D.: Right. That’s why they can’t be too discriminating now.

C.B.: I suspect that you grab what you can at a moment like this.

J.D.: I remember going out to a hangar at JFK where artifacts from the WTC were stored and labeled. It was gargantuan.

C.B.: That was one reason I tweeted about a window full of bullet holes that I thought should be tagged and saved. I thought it might not be removed so fast — that curators would have time to grab it.

J.D.: The repairs have to be made quickly, but some physical damage can and must be preserved, like the bomb damage at the JPMorgan building on Wall Street from the 1920 attack.

M.B.: A frozen-in-time approach just won’t work here, in my opinion.

J.D.: Where there’s a particularly evocative example of damage, especially to masonry, it can be preserved without danger. You can’t leave a doorway full of broken glass, though.

M.B.: Right. And you can still be preservation minded while also repairing what’s needed. Repairs don’t have to mean erasure.

C.B.: Especially a window that stopped a bullet. It has to be made bulletproof again!

M.B.: We’re also looking at the potential for continued violence. An FBI report today warned of even more mobs in the run-up to Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

J.D.: Let’s keep in mind that this was an assault on people more than on a building.

That’s what makes it so chilling. Preserving a broken window can actually wind up trivializing the real murderous energy of the attack. We saw the physical damage to files, offices, windows, etc., right away. What came out over the ensuing days was something quite different. The beating of Officer Sicknick, for example. It’s taken a little while for the real violence to sink in.

M.B.: The images and videos can tell a much fuller picture.

C.B.: That’s true, Megan, but you also want physical artifacts — the fraught object has a special power.

M.B.: Absolutely. Depending on what type of memorial this ends up being, videos of people attacking Capitol Police next to a bullet-ridden window could be especially powerful. You get both the actions of the mob and the fraught object.

C.B.: I think of the flour sack at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which leaves people (including me) sobbing. The humbleness of the object and the deep terror that lies behind it.

J.D.: As Carolina Miranda pointed out in the L.A. Times, the Capitol is already a kind of pictorial representation of American history, albeit a pretty distorted one. One of the missions here is to extend and expand the ways in which the Capitol tells that story — and this is a good place to start.

M.B.: And whose story is it telling?

J.D.: Getting that right will be a huge curatorial job. The question is whether the Capitol itself is best equipped to tell it, as opposed to, say, the Smithsonian.

A window with bullet damage. Should it go to the Smithsonian? Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

C.B.: Michael Kimmelman made the argument that the broken windows and other damage should be left in place — “Let’s show everyone what they did.” I respect his instinct, and I understand it, but I don’t think that is quite right.

M.B.: Yeah, Kimmelman’s argument is missing the mark a bit. Things need to be saved, but leaving them in place implies that we already know what type of commemoration is going to happen out of this. And, frankly, it’s too early.

C.B.: Time makes things clearer, and so do changing senses of what matters — I remember that when the White House was renovated in the late 1940s, they uncovered some beams that were charred from the burning of the building in 1812. And I don’t think they were saved, and perhaps you would now want to have those in place, behind glass or something.

There’s also the practical problem that you don’t want everyone to have to go to work next month surrounded by bullet holes. It is going to freak people out for quite a while.

M.B.: God, yes. The trauma of that.

C.B.: Not everyone is wired to appreciate this stuff in the long view, the way historians are.

M.B.: Right, and even then it will be contested. The most powerful memorials allow for a reckoning with how the history is remembered, too.

J.D.: Leaving damage in place becomes an architectural problem — how to integrate it into a functioning government building that is also open to the public. (Though it may become a lot less open — one of the potential consequences of the storming.) Take the door where Ashli Babbitt was killed … Multiple windows were broken — only one, I think, completely, the one she tried to climb through before she was shot. That breakage pattern is part of the drama of those moments. But I assume that, because it’s so close to the House chamber, it will have to be replaced. So maybe you remove the entire door, complete with broken window panes (if it’s not too late), and preserve that for display elsewhere.

C.B.: Here’s a good thread by Erin Blakemore about how Norman Foster handled that when renovating the Reichstag.

M.B.: It’s hard to know where we stand in the timeline of preserving these things.

But I think that’s the exact right approach, Justin.

C.B.: Then you hit a separate, albeit less pressing, problem: If it’s a 150-year-old door, in a building that has significant historic fabric, do you really want to remove it?

M.B.: The layers-of-history argument.

J.D.: Maybe it can be reinstalled later on, once new protocols are in place and there’s a historical context. Part of the issue is that the damage, and the debris, are all over the building, not localized in one or two spots.

C.B.: You can also reproduce it, install the reproduction, and put up a sign.

M.B.: And yet, Justin, as you mentioned, the Capitol wasn’t structurally damaged beyond repair.

J.D.: You can’t turn the whole building into a display.

C.B.: That is true. Because the assault on the Capitol was an attack from within the country, rather than from (let’s say) a war of independence, this is never going to be something we can glorify. It’s different from, say, Nassau Hall at Princeton University, which has a big divot in one of the exterior stones where a cannonball hit it during the Revolution. They’re proud of it — they point it out on campus tours and keep the ivy trimmed back around it.

M.B.: Well, the victors always decide how things are memorialized, so.

J.D.: To my mind, putting the physical artifacts and the damage in historical context, along with video artifacts and text, is more important than leaving them in place. We’re not going to reerect the gallows on the plaza, for instance (or wherever it was).

M.B.: Oof, I just cringed at that.

C.B.: Good Lord, yeah. Though I could see preserving one plank in a museum exhibit or something.

J.D.: But that’s one of the most appalling objects from the whole day, and it needs to be part of the story.

M.B.: Absolutely, especially in the context of how many people died, something that really only came into focus in the hours and days after the attack.

J.D.: I think if you could preserve the whole thing — the gallows — that would be ideal, but I assume it’s already been destroyed.

C.B.: You know, I am of the “preserve everything” school of thought, but I’m really okay with that.

M.B.: With the gallows being destroyed?

C.B.: Yeah.

J.D.: Broken windows are eloquent. Broken windows + Auschwitz shirt + Trump & Confederate flags + zip ties + gas masks and helmets are much more eloquent.

M.B.: The collective can really tell the fuller story. The difference between one pair of shoes at Auschwitz and thousands.

J.D.: This was an assault organized partly via social media, so those pages are also part of the artifact collection.

M.B.: How historians tackle social media is a whole other can of worms.

C.B.: Until a couple of years ago, the Library of Congress was archiving every tweet, but it stopped. I think dropping that program was a mistake, myself.

M.B.: So we’ve come to the conclusion that preserving as much as possible right now is the goal, but we really don’t know much else. Will a future Capitol memorial be a site for truth-telling? A place of national mourning? The start of reconciliation for a divided country? Or will the story be about the reassertion of democratic values? It’s too early to know.

J.D.: The story of January 6 will be told in multiple ways and in many different places, in part because the artifacts are dispersed. How it’s told at the Capitol (or the Smithsonian, or whatever) will compete with the way it’s memorialized in Trumpland and by its successors. Perhaps even at the … [ominous music] Trump Presidential Library.

C.B.: That will be fascinating. Like the highly modulated Watergate exhibit at the Nixon library, but a hundred times worse.

J.D.: Yes. One big question is whether the storming of the Capitol gets seen as its own discrete event or as part of the narrative of the Trump presidency.

M.B.: And some of that narrative still has to be played out over the next nine days. This certainly has me worried. We don’t really know if the violence at the Capitol was the culmination of Trumpism or just the start of the last chapter.

C.B.: We might have to have this conversation again in a week and a half. I hope not.

J.D.: At the 9/11 Museum, where you have both the magnitude of the historical event, the scale of destruction, and an array of very personal, heartbreaking items — including voice-mail messages — they did a fantastic job of integrating all those things.

M.B.: Those voice-mail messages destroy me. Which is entirely the point.

How Do We Preserve Artifacts From the Capitol Attacks?