Memory  /  Museum Review

Insurrectionabilia at the Smithsonian

In 2026, we will celebrate the nation’s semiquincentennial, and also the fifth anniversary of the January 6th uprising.

In the wake of 9/11, the museum and other like-minded institutions intensified their efforts in what is known as rapid-response collecting. The idea, in essence: grab stuff before it’s gone and let posterity sweat the appraisals. The museum has already amassed a significant collection of insurrectionabilia. In a large storage room housing items related to the Presidency and Presidential politics—the drawers conceal such treasures as George Washington’s baptismal blanket, Warren Harding’s slippers, and a petrified slice of Franklin Roosevelt’s fifty-second-birthday cake—a curator named Claire Jerry displayed an array of posters and other detritus collected from the Mall on the morning of January 7, 2021. A stolen traffic sign that someone had painted over with the slogan “Stop the Steal 2020” and the image of a grinning skull with Donald Trump’s hair, smoking a cigarette, had an undeniable flair, even if its iconography was hard to parse. More poignant was a strip of blue fabric with the word “PENCE” in white letters that had seemingly been torn—in anger? sorrow?—from a “TRUMP PENCE” flag. A white poster board was stencilled with what Jerry dryly referred to as “an interesting historical reference”: “Time to Cross the Rubicon.”

Frank A. Blazich, Jr., a curator whose area of expertise is modern military history, was the volunteer who preserved all of this. Given the pandemic and the holidays, he was one of the few staffers in town on January 6th, and, as an Air Force veteran, he felt comfortable dealing with a potentially volatile situation. He arrived on the Mall before 7 A.M. the next day (a citywide curfew had been imposed from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M.), and raced ahead of cleaning crews, scavenging lawns, bushes, and garbage cans for three hours, until he had filled his Toyota S.U.V. One artifact couldn’t fit—the wooden gallows that protesters had erected in front of the Capitol, which by morning had been knocked on its side. But he did photograph the graffiti that protesters had scribbled on it, messages such as “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” and “WHERE ARE YOU THOMAS JEFFERSON?!,” along with—easy to parse—an S.S. symbol.