Working on the History of the January 6th Capitol Attack
by Lauren Rever
In a Congressional hearing on May 12, 2021, Republican Representative Andrew Clyde (Georgia) said about the Capitol insurrection: “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit” (Itkowitz 2021).
Representative Clyde’s statement denies a fundamental and evident truth: The mob’s intentional violence is visible from start to finish. Hundreds of insurrectionists beat officers, stepped over injured bodies, crossed barriers, scaled walls, tormented Capitol staff barricaded in offices, and otherwise gleefully streamed into a federal building which, on any other day pre-pandemic, would have been open to the public.
No, erecting gallows is not what happens on a normal tourist visit.
No, tourists do not break doors and windows to enter a federal building.
No, stepping onto the House and Senate floors for any reason is not what tourists do at the Capitol.
The list goes on.
And yet, these insurrectionists were also performing tourist actions.
“We’ve never been here before!”
“It’s beautiful in there, guys!”
“This is the state Capitol. Babe!”
“I’m just looking for a f*****g restroom!” 1
The Capitol building is a museum, after all.
I worked as a full-time visitor guide at the Capitol for 15 months as a member of a large career staff trained in visitor services and historical interpretation. Approximately 3 to 5 million visitors enter the Capitol each year for work or for touring (Architect of the Capitol). When I began to watch videos posted within hours of the insurrection, including the CSPAN footage in National Statuary Hall, I heard a man address his group in a tone that made my skin crawl. “Do not, do not deface the statues” (CSPAN 2021, 1:37:14). He sounded entirely too much like a teacher managing rowdy students on one of the countless field trips to Washington, DC.
I started combing through videos to find similar instances that reminded me of the moments I experienced on tour – moments that did not leave an impression at the time but instead formed a latent, mental record that is bursting with bits of information after providing up to five tours a day for up to fifty-five visitors per tour (10,000 to 15,000 visitors enter the Capitol each day at peak season). I watched a rioter record each individual statue in the Crypt. I watched people cut off the flow of traffic into the Rotunda as their eyes were drawn 180 feet in the air to look at The Apotheosis of George Washington.
Though the Trump supporters’ aggressive attack stands in sharp contrast to tour queues (as mocked by TikTok user Liz Jenkins), the rioters were still experiencing the Capitol as a historic site. The Capitol was built with stone quarried by enslaved laborers and is today filled with individualistic statues and simplified narratives of American exceptionalism. The Capitol was not a passive stage in this display of entitlement and violence. It was an actor. Trump supporters were making meaning of their violent presence in the building within personal understandings of what U.S. history is and who history is for.
Since Representative Clyde’s remarks, I have hesitated to write this piece. Therefore, I must emphatically state that I point out these similarities not to downplay the violent, white nationalist attack on the seat of government which left five people dead. Nor do I claim that those who walked a deliberate path to the seats of U.S. power, presumably to take hostages, acted in the same manner as others on video. I point out the similarities to emphasize current efforts to manage historic site use and dangerous national narratives. Interpretive tour guides (“interpreters”) are key figures in this effort. While curators know objects, interpreters know visitors; their profession is designed to foster a visitors’ personal connection with a site. 2 “While other analyses look towards desecration to contextualize the attack on the Capitol, I seek to contextualize this extreme use of the Capitol within current history interpretation praxis. Representative Clyde’s remarks have provided an example of why this praxis is needed.”
The current narrativization of the January 6th Capitol insurrection – from memes to Congressional hearings – is a real-time occurrence of various processes of public “history making.” One component that makes these cultural narrative processes part of a collective history making is the way in which they have become embedded in historic sites and within historical institutions. Drawing from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, anthropologist Dr. Barbara Little explains this connection between a site, history, and narratives: “What is at stake is political, social, and economic power, rooted in the power to say what happened, to mark it on the landscape, and to simultaneously silence other histories” (2019).
In 2014, public historians and cultural workers Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell asked via Twitter how museums would respond Ferguson, referencing Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown.3 One year after that, Dylann Roof visited multiple South Carolina plantation sites before murdering nine Black parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church.4 During the Trump administration, managers at Ford’s Theatre (the site of President Lincoln’s assassination) planned how to facilitate dialogue about white racial superiority and political violence. In the days after George Floyd’s murder, the National Association of Interpretation declared that “interpreters are uniquely positioned to help grow understanding and begin to heal a broken nation” (2020).
Consider here, for a moment, the emphasis on the interpreter themselves, rather than the institution.
Heritage workers have increasingly taken on the labor of reconciling contested narratives. They combine the imperative to shape their world and the power to talk about “what happened.” The specifics and methods vary, but at the heart of this work is a basic formula that looks like this:
- Something bad happened here (and in the collective American past).
- Some bad things like this have happened before, but some components were unique to this time and place.
- If interpreters at historic sites share this story in a responsible way, something bad might not happen again.
Historic sites, such as Robert E. Lee’s estate Arlington House, have woven this massive task into how they present their heritage tourism services (to the dismay of some plantation site visitors who did not want to hear about slavery).
Many institutions, including the National Park Service, train interpretive guides to break down historical content into tangible, intangible, and universal concepts. Universal concepts consist of things like “love, freedom, hunger” and exist to bring diverse visitors towards common ground (Brochu 2012). Some monument creators look to change how sensory experiences and social opportunities are inscribed in built landscapes (Edensor 2020). Other institutions organize historical topics around contemporary injustices. Others use artwork and dance. Still others strive to hold their institutions – overwhelmingly white and wealthy – to practice the standards they preach. Specifically, managers at historic sites where pain and grief occur(ed) have begun to train workers to manage the emotions and the hostility of the public. They explore techniques of conflict resolution and trauma-informed teaching. Leaders in the field have also found South Africa’s Four Truths method applicable, particularly for its potential usefulness in managing violence and what historian Philipp Seitz names “white history” (Little 2019). The Four Truths are designed to bring together forensic facts and personal narratives to build a societal truth towards public healing.5 “Philosopher Susan Neiman explores this practice in terms of the German version of working on the past, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. Or, to use the words of interpreter Dr. Joseph McGill, “I resolve to make you uncomfortable because that’s when the learning starts” (McGill 2021).”
These institutionalized interpretation plans show the sheer amount of effort put towards managing a collective history making process, specifically through visitor interactions on site. Professionals formed these plans for many reasons. One important reason, however, is that these processes which the plans now facilitate were already happening as visitors brought their own pain, knowledge, personal histories, biases, jokes, and falsehoods to historic sites, day after day, year after year.
Indeed, a foundational detail in interpretation work is the question “what do visitors bring with them when they visit a historic site?”
Historical geographer Dr. Emma Walcott-Wilson investigated how this concept played out in her research on affect and plantation site tour guides. Workers told her that white visitors would ask how old a certain tree was; Black visitors would ask if anyone was lynched in the tree. Notable in her work, too, is the effect this repeated interpretation work had on the tour guides: “I never foresaw going home every day and just being stuck for like, an hour… I just sat on my floor and cried,” one worker told her (Walcott-Wilson 2020). The answer to the question of what visitors bring (and thus leave with workers) is ever-expanding.
Returning to the video clips of January 6, I wondered, what did these rioters bring with them to the Capitol that lent itself to admiration of the historic site while trying to overthrow the elected officials that it housed?
From my latent record of information from giving tours at the Capitol, I answered: entitlement, aggression, white supremacy, unempathetic individualism, and the unwillingness to sit with uncomfortable facts or to grieve the loss of identity-forming American myths. Similar to the “societal truth” step of the Four Truths method, a tour through the collective “People’s House” demands some re-negotiation of personal truth, including the narrative that the building – and thus the stories told there – is owned by any one person or group. Many visitors refused to acknowledge the empathy, patience, and grace this collective experience requires.
I recalled the way a Congressional staffer would hold up a hand to silence me. I recalled hearing “our taxes paid for this” when a (free) tour became inconvenient. I recalled seeing immense grief in the faces of one tour group, and then hearing “we don’t want to hear about slavery” from the next. Entitlement, ambivalence, and aggression were not incompatible with enjoyment at the Capitol. Unlike training plans, there is no institutional way to trace and cite coded moments from my tours, except to add them to a collective experience shared with those of us working on the past.
Here, then, is my documentation of one final example: I would wince at the question “is that Pelosi’s office?” when guiding a group from the Rotunda to National Statuary Hall. The official sign confirmed that it was Speaker Pelosi’s office; the visitor did not need my confirmation. In those moments, I would do my best to figure out what the asker was really trying to communicate. I often used the fact that we were walking as an excuse not to find out. Part of me recognized the vile, misplaced resentment many Americans held towards the Speaker, resentment that actually played out in her office on January 6th.
Now, most of us have added the events of January 6th to a larger collective meaning of the Capitol. When tourists return, they too will bring their version with them.
Though we have witnessed tectonic shifts in historic site representation in recent years, including Robert E. Lee’s Virginia state statue removed from the Capitol Crypt, the deep institutionalization of working on the past will be slow. The minute moments – between visitor and workers – have been and will continue to be a dynamic force in how history is made. It will take place within the landscape of imperfect historic sites, with all their embedded meanings. It will include emotions, conflict, discomfort, burn out, and tools for healing.
If we are lucky, it will take place with institutional support and interpretation plans. This moment raises practical questions about what safety, fair compensation, and support means in historical institutions going forward. The Congress that cannot settle on a fundamental truth about January 6th is the same institution which ultimately oversees the Capitol Visitor Center and funds the guide service.6 These promising yet unclear roadmaps within institutions are also why I agree with grassroots workers who use social media as a tool for professionals and non-professionals to collectively explore this process outside institutions.
Leadership will eventually open the Capitol for tours in the coming months. Americans will continue “going to Washington” with all the symbolic and real power embedded within that action.7 Tourists will wait in carefully constructed underground security lines while red-vested visitor assistants announce rules designed to keep Congress safe (no water, no food, no weapons). People will, for various reasons, show their entitlement and insist that they can skip the line.
But if Representative Clyde gets his wish, the winning narrative of the January 6th Capitol attack will be one where fundamental puzzle pieces are missing. Visitors and workers alike will have to first grapple with why their stories on site feel so incomplete. Indeed, just by brazenly declaring his lie he has already won part of that battle.
And, as fellow heritage workers could attest, the phrase “why have I never heard this before?” is also one I so often heard on tour.
1. The videos consulted for this piece are archived on CSPAN or ProPublica. ↩
2. Interpretation is defined by the National Association of Interpretation as “a communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the inherent meanings of the resource.”↩
3. Brown and Russell led a monthly Twitter chat under #MuseumsRespondToFerguson. ↩
5. The Four Truths are: forensic truth, personal/narrative truth, societal truth, and public/healing truth. ↩
6. Though the guide service and Capitol Visitor Center are funded by the Congressional legislative budget, there exist multiple historical and interpretative authorities in Congress including but not limited to the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, the Architect of the Capitol, the House and Senate historian’s offices, and other interpretive trainers, oral historians, art historians, archivists, and curators. ↩
7. See Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition by Lucy Barber for an evaluation of how assembling in Washington, DC became a common act of power. ↩
Architect of the Capitol. (n.d.). U.S. Capitol Building.
Barber, L. 2002. Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition. UC Press.
Brochu, L. & Merriman, T. (2012) Certified Interpretive Guide Training Workbook. National Association for Interpretation.
CSPAN. (2021, January 6). Protesters Cross Statuary Hall. [Video]. Accessed June 2, 2021.
Edensor, T. (2020). Stone: Stories of Urban Materiality. Palgrave Macmillan.
Groeger, L. et al. (2021, January 17). What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol. ProPublica. https://projects.propublica.org/parler-capitol-videos/
2:30 p.m. Inside the Capitol. [Video of Crypt in which recorder states to someone, “this is the Capitol. Babe!” The person responds “it’s amazing!” at timestamp 0:14]. https://projects.propublica.org/parler-capitol-videos/?id=NYRHCOsbj0bi.
2:35 p.m. Inside the Capitol. [Video of a crowd walking into the Capitol Rotunda from the West entrance and stopping to record the Apotheosis of George Washington].
3:09 p.m. Inside the Capitol. Video 1. [Video from January 6th Capitol attack in which the phrase “It’s beautiful in there guys” is heard at timestamp 0:47 and “I’m just looking for a f*****g bathroom” is heard at timestamp 5:37].
3:09 p.m. Inside the Capitol. Video 2. [Video from January 6th Capitol attack in which a person is recording state statues in the Crypt at time stamp 0:33].
Itkowitz, C. (2021, May 12). ‘Normal tourist visit’: Republicans recast deadly Jan. 6 attack by pro-Trump mob. The Washington Post. Accessed June 8, 2021.
Little, B. (2019). “Violence, silence, and the four truths: towards healing in U.S.-American historical memory.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 25(7-9), 631-640.
Larsen, D. (n.d.). Interpretive Development Program: An Interpretive Dialogue. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior.
McGill, J. [@slavedwellingproject]. (2021, May 27). How many of you are still accomplishing your New Year resolution(s). I am. [Photo with text]. Instagram.
National Association for Interpretation. (June 25, 2020). Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Race, Social Justice, and Interpretation Panel Discussion.
Walcott-Wilson, E. (2020). Tour Guides as Place-makers: Emotional Labor, Plantation Aesthetics, and Interpretations of Slavery at Southern House Museums [Doctoral thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. ResearchGate].
Header Image: “View of the Capitols East Front Plaza”, the Architect of the Capitol.
“The U.S. Capitol and the Capitol Visitor Center entrance”, photo by author.
“Rioter with Speaker’s office sign on January 6th“, photo from Department of Justice court warrant.
About the Author
Lauren Rever is a public historian and doctoral researcher in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA), funded by the German Research Association (DFG). Her research focuses on public history labor and the role of historical institutions in American life. Lauren Rever holds a BA from Boston College and an MA from The George Washington University. You can get in touch with her on Instagram or via E-mail, or read her previous article on increasing housing dispairities due to the Covid19 pandemic here.