Jan. 6 artifacts collected at American History Museum point to organization, planning and violence

The museum collected several artifacts in the days following the attack.

January 5, 2022, 7:06 PM

The early collection of historical artifacts collected by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History documenting the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, includes a flak jacket worn by a journalist when she was attacked and signs with violent rhetoric.

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"Off with their heads," one sign reads, echoing the chilling words chanted by rioters who stormed the Capitol and threatened the lives of lawmakers.

"Those are heavy signs. 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," Claire Jerry, curator of political history at the museum told ABC News, describing the sign and others in the collection with words stenciled and spray-painted on large, thick sheets of metal.

PHOTO: Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Jose Luis Magana/AP, FILE

On Jan. 6, ABC News Live will provide all-day coverage of events marking one year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the continuing fallout for American democracy.

The museum collected several artifacts in the days immediately following the attack. As they often do, especially in the nation's capital city, they sent out a rapid response team to pick up and preserve discarded material on the National Mall and around the Capitol buildings. Jerry said in some cases, her staff tried to stay ahead of cleaning crews to gather significant material that otherwise might have been lost.

Museum staff says it's been a challenge to bring in new artifacts this last year, because of COVID-19 restrictions and extensive, ongoing law enforcement investigations. But the team was quick to talk about the historical significance of that day as it related to the nation's politics, and the 2020 campaign and election.

PHOTO: Papers and gas masks are left behind after House of Representatives members left the floor of the House chamber as rioters try to break into the chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Papers and gas masks are left behind after House of Representatives members left the floor of the House chamber as rioters try to break into the chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP, FILE

"This peaceful transfer of presidential authority, the mainstay of the American democracy since 1800, was intentionally interrupted as thousands of rioters, many carrying Trump banners and signs, violently broke through police security and entered the Capitol. This was the first time that the Capitol had been breached on a large scale since the War of 1812 when British troops attacked the city," museum staff wrote in a press release this week.

Over 700 criminal cases have been brought against rioters and nearly 200 individuals have already pleaded guilty. Dozens of law enforcements officials were injured during the attack, many of them hospitalized and out of work for months.

"The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and on the foundation of the United States' democratic republic, revealed the fragility of our political system," said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum's Elizabeth MacMillan director. "As the nation's flagship history museum, our staff is committed to documenting and, most importantly, preserving this history for future generations to understand how the events of that fraught day unfolded and to track their ongoing impacts."

Included in the collection is a group of National Guard insignia from units from around the country who responded in days after the attack, as well as a flak jacket worn by a freelance photographer when she was attacked by a female rioter on the Capitol ground the evening of Jan. 6.

PHOTO: A flag that reads "Treason" is visible on the ground in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021, after rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington.
A flag that reads "Treason" is visible on the ground in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021, after rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington.
Andrew Harnik/AP, FILE

The attacker's knife blade pierced straight through the heavy material of journalist Madeleine Kelly's jacket. The attack was clearly violent and forceful. Kelly credits the jacket with keeping her safe, if not saving her life.

"We know from video and from photographs that the press was literally attacked. There were stashed cameras, and this is an important story to tell," Shannon Perich, photography curator, told ABC at the museum. The vest is displayed on a mannequin that is designed to be close to Kelly's size.

"Her physicality was not threatening, but she was taking photographs and that was threatening. And this is an interesting story to think about the power of photography in that way," Perich added.

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