September 23, 2016
How Objects Tell The Story Of The Presidential Election
For anyone living through this year’s election, the number of historic and oftentimes absurd moments seem so extreme in their outlandishness that they will likely be impossible to forget. Still, no event is immune to the dulling nature of time, and in fifty years even the most out-there moments (like Melania Trump’s familiar convention speech) will fade from our collective memories.
That’s where Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Jon Grinspan, curators at the political history division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, come in. They attended the Republican and Democratic National Conventions with the goal of collecting objects that tell the story of 2016.
In total, they shipped nearly 100 pounds of objects from Cleveland and Philadelphia back to the museum in Washington, D.C. Once it arrived, it was cataloged, organized and put away for safekeeping in the Political History Division’s main storage area. Some of the items will be on display in an upcoming exhibit, American Democracy, slated to open next summer. Others will be hidden away in the storage area’s drawers for decades or even centuries to come.
By far the most common object the curators collected at the conventions were signs.
“When you’re watching this on TV one of the things you see immediately are all of the signs that people at the convention are holding to either cheer on the speaker, or they’re responding to something that’s going on in the crowd,” Graddy said. “So we brought back from both of the conventions signs that I’m sure people will remember seeing on TV. Everything from the classic Trump-Pence sign to Veterans for Trump, Women for Trump, and then all of the variations that the Trump campaign used on making America great again, make America strong again, make America one again, make America first again.”
Graddy and Grinspan said their goal at the conventions was not just to collect items that represent the 2016 election, but also items that draw connections to America’s past.
“The goal of all this is we want to primarily represent change and continuity in American politics and American democracy,” Grinspan said.
That’s why, besides signs, one of the most common items the curators collected was buttons.
“Buttons are a constant,” Graddy said. “Buttons have been a part of American political history since supporters of George Washington purchased buttons at his inauguration to show that they supported the first president.”
Many of the objects at the conventions had negative messaging opposing the other party’s candidate, like the button that read, “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one.”
But Grinspan said the negativity is nothing new.
“Going back to 1800, American politics has always had an element of conflict and voting against somebody as opposed to voting for somebody,” Grinspan said. “Sometimes that conflict turned violent throughout American history, so by the standards of American democracy we’ve seen much greater conflict than we see today.”
While the curators spend a lot of their time thinking about how an item may compare to similar ones from the past, they also have to think about how it may be interpreted in the future.
“The way we interpret things today with our biases and our views is probably very different from how a researcher in 50 years will look at this stuff,” Grinspan said. “Something we overlook will have meaning to them, and something that’s very obvious and self-evident to us will be totally incomprehensible to them.”
An example, he said, is a Wisconsin cheesehead hat from the Democratic National Convention. The hat is decorated with an American flag sash and a Hillary Clinton button.
“To us that says Hillary Clinton, someone from Wisconsin supporting it, and some kind of connection to popular culture. But you can imagine that in a museum or being looked at by a researcher in the future and they’re not going to know what a cheesehead is or what that represents or all of the cultural things that are built into that,” Grinspan said. “So part of the job is trying to figure out what will be comprehensible and what says something about this moment in time.”
This year’s conventions were notable for their lack of candidate unity; supporters of Bernie Sanders wore bright neon green, glow in the dark shirts to stand out at the DNC, and the Colorado delegation staged a walk-out to oppose Donald Trump in Cleveland at the RNC.
Graddy said one of her favorite items is the Colorado delegation sign, which is signed by all of the state’s delegates.
In the future, that sign will help to tell the story of the Colorado delegation’s walk out. Similarly, another of Graddy’s favorite items is a shirt that tells the story of the historic moment when the first woman became a major political party presidential nominee.
Graddy said the t-shirts, which feature a picture of Margaret from the Dennis the Menace cartoon, were first made in the 1990s. They were handed out at this year’s Democratic convention as a reminder of how long that statement has taken to come true.
When Graddy saw that shirt, she immediately started thinking about how it might one day be displayed in a museum.
“You start to think of what things you want to juxtapose and you construct a case in your head of how you can use this,” she said.
The t-shirt might go well with a pair of Minnie Mouse ears that she brought back from the Democratic convention, she said.
“I was standing on a higher level a few tiers up in the arena and saw this bobbing,” said Graddy of the Minnie Mouse ears. “This is from a Florida delegate. It’s a wonderfully silly object, but it speaks to state identity… Conventions are a wonderful combination of a very serious moment and an incredibly playful moment for all of the delegates involved.”
Another item that the curators brought back that represents state identity is a West Virginia delegate’s hard hat.
“That hat encompasses debates that exist today about energy, about coal, about climate change, about politics,” Grinspan said. “There’s a million things built into this plastic hat, and they argue with things from the Democratic convention about climate change and renewable energy. It’s all built into this thing that they could have brought home and put on a shelf at the end or thrown it away, but instead its part of our collections here.”
And don’t think they forgot what is likely the most well-known item from this year’s election cycle: the red “Make America Great Again” hat.
Graddy described her job at the convention as “somewhere between a dumpster diver and a treasure hunter.” Despite the hundreds of objects they brought back, she still feels like she missed a few things.
“It’s sensory overload in that space. It’s amazing but it’s bright and it’s loud and you cannot see everything that’s going on and you turn to look at one thing and focus on it and then something else will come up from the other side,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen going on here; you’re just running and running to stay basically in place.”
Grinspan agreed that the challenge of choosing which objects to collect was daunting.
“I remember the sensation both in Cleveland and Philly the first night of leaving this place where there are 15,000 people with posters and buttons and holding one button in my hand and thinking, Oh, my God, there’s so much more to collect,” he said.
If it wasn’t for Graddy and Grinspan, many of the items that are now an official part of the Smithsonian’s collection would likely have ended up in the trash, as most items from political campaigns do.
“Part of the power of this stuff is it’s all ephemeral, it’s all on one level garbage in that somebody could’ve thrown it all away,” Grinspan said. “Part of what we’re doing is trying to think for the general public, for museum goers, for curators, for researchers in 100 years what can we hold on to, what can we pull out of that dumpster that would otherwise be thrown away, and preserve and turn into a national treasure.”
What’s next for the curators? Look for them at the presidential inauguration, collecting items—maybe even something you’ve created—to turn into national treasures.