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Conservation & Preservation

Officials reveal full extent of damage to US Capitol’s art after pro-Trump rampage

Officials explore harm to busts and paintings in the House from chemical sprays and describe frantic efforts to change airflows as melee unfolded

Pro-Trump protesters storming the public spaces of the US Capitol on 6 January Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In testimony before a US House of Representatives subcommittee, a somewhat fuller picture emerged today of damage to art and artefacts in the Capitol during the 6 January insurrection by an invading mob of supporters of Donald Trump.

Rioters in Washington, DC, spurred by an outdoor speech by Trump, then still president, broke into and rampaged through the Capitol that day, crashing through windows and prying open doors in a move to prevent Congress from certifying Trump’s election defeat by Joseph R. Biden Jr. Chemical spray fired by the insurrectionists settled on busts and paintings in the House, and expert conservation will be needed to prevent the discolouring of objects, Farar Elliott, the curator in the office of the House Clerk, told the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

Elliott says that she and the curator for the US Senate led a walk-through of the House the day after the insurrection and identified eight objects in the House with potential damage. All resided in the corridors adjacent to the House chamber, where lawmakers had gathered to certify the election result.

She says that this preliminary survey revealed potential repercussions for marble and granite busts of former Speakers Joe Cannon, Champ Clark, Joe Martin and Thomas Brackett Reed; portraits of James Madison and John Quincy Adams; a bust of the Chippewa statesman Be shekee; and a statue of Thomas Jefferson. “We noted that they and their frames, plinths, pedestals and niches were covered in a fine powder, likely residue from a chemical spray,” Elliott says in her prepared remarks.

To stabilise all four speaker busts temporarily and prevent further damage, staff members covered them in museum-grade plastic. Subsequent analysis from samples taken identified the powder as discharge from a nearby fire extinguisher that included chemicals such as silicone oil and yellow dye, she says.

Elliott says that $25,000 is needed to restore the eight objects to their previous condition, a tiny fraction of what is being expended to remedy the damage that the insurrectionists caused in the Capitol complex as they smashed windows, fired propellants and manhandled furniture.

She notes that staff members rescued artefacts that figure into the House’s legislative history as the riot unfolded, such as an 1819 silver inkstand, the oldest object in the legislative chamber, and an 1841 mace in the chamber that is a symbol of the authority of the House’s sergeant at arms.

Later the House clerk stopped by the House’s most recently opened exhibition, marking the 150th anniversary of the election of Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the first African-American House representative, and confirmed the safety of artefacts and portraits of Rainey and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, Elliott notes.

In other testimony, J. Brett Blanton, architect of the Capitol, described how work by his team that morning on preparing the Capitol for Biden’s inauguration was destroyed by the mob. The inauguration platform for the Capitol steps was wrecked, broken glass from windows was strewn throughout, sound systems and photographic equipment were damaged or stolen, and two historic lanterns designed by Frederick Law Olmsted were ripped from the ground, Blanton says.

Newly applied blue paint was tracked over the Capitol’s historic stone balustrades and through the hallways, he adds. More broadly, he notes that most of the damage to the Capitol involved broken glass, battered doors and graffiti, while works such as those cited by Elliott were also affected.

In a striking anecdote, Blanton relates that his staff rushed to protect congressional staff members during the riot and also raced to the Capitol roof to reverse airflows within the building to clear the air from chemical irritants wielded by the insurrectionists such as bear repellent and pepper spray.

After a $30m transfer from the House Appropriations Committee to address the Architect of the Capitol’s added expenses and to extend perimeter fencing, Blanton pleads for a reassessment of the site’s security needs, which the federal government and the Capitol police failed to anticipate on 6 January.

“If we do not learn from these mistakes, the campus will remain vulnerable to unknown and unexpected threats,” he says.