The Smithsonian is already hunting for impeachment artefacts

Peggy McGlone

THE WASHINGTON POST – Years from now, when school groups visit the National Museum of American History, they might learn about the impeachment of a president through a fidget spinner. And they will have Jon Grinspan, the Smithsonian’s curator of political history, to thank.

Grinspan is a soft-spoken, academic version of Indiana Jones, on the hunt not for the Ark of the Covenant but for something perhaps more elusive: the exactly right objects to tell the story of the impeachment of United States (US) President Donald Trump.

Grinspan was in the Senate gallery last week when he observed several politicians – who are banned from using cellphones during the trial – keeping their hands busy with the popular toys. Maybe the items will be used to illustrate the tedium of the marathon sessions and the challenge of keeping senators/jurors alert and focussed on the proceedings.

Grinspan has yet to acquire a fidget spinner – or any object that tells the story of these events, only the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history. But he and two colleagues will do their best to compile a group of items that will help the museum chronicle this highly charged moment in a non-partisan way.

It’s not an easy task, although the danger is not of the Indiana Jones, giant rolling boulder variety.

Political History Curator Jon Grinspan with impeachment buttons from the Nixon years. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Close-up of the National Museum of American History’s Nixon era impeachment buttons
The file cabinet that was broken into by President Richard Nixon’s ‘plumbers’

In an era of deep political division, public historians are under great scrutiny about how they tell their stories. The recent debacle at the National Archives – which apologised for and removed a doctored photograph from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington that had been scrubbed of language and political references deemed unsuitable for display in the building’s lobby – illustrates the pressures facing these institutions. With public suspicion high and patience low, curators must be scrupulous in their collecting, keeping their focus on telling the whole story for future visitors.

“(At the Smithsonian) we have a lot of national trust, and that makes us feel a greater responsibility,” said Grinspan, 36, adding that the Archives issue “has had no effect on me”.

“The landscape was tense before President Trump. When we were collecting Obama (material), it was challenging as well,” he said. “We want to step up our game in being as non-biased as possible. It makes it better history.”

Over the next few months – both in the District of Columbia and on the campaign trail – Grinspan will talk to political insiders, casual observers and activists of all stripes to find and collect objects for the Smithsonian museum’s permanent collection. There is no guidebook to this work – no wish list to share with people he meets. Instead, Grinspan said, he tries to keep an open mind and be flexible enough to see the things that speak to what’s unfolding.

“It’s a guessing game. No one is a scientist about this,” he said.

There’s a time-travel aspect to the work, he said. What he collects now will be viewed by visitors a hundred years from now, and it could be on display in a gallery that boasts such objects as the hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night of his assassination and a microphone that Franklin Roosevelt used to broadcast his fireside chats.

As federally funded museum curators, political historians approach the proceedings carefully and respectfully, said Anthea Hartig, a historian who is director of the Smithsonian museum. It is paramount that the museum maintain the trust of the American people and their political representatives, she said.

“I take to heart the fact that we have wonderful relationships, sustained relationships, with all three branches of government,” Hartig said. “We’re incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for the long relationship we have and the support we receive.”

The museum has allies in both parties, including those who serve on the institution’s Board of Regents and others who are sympathetic to their tasks. “I guess you don’t become a US senator without having an interest in US history,” Grinspan said.

“They may feel differently about the outcome (of the impeachment trial), but they understand the historic moment,” Hartig added. The task of museum collecting is complicated by the need for visually interesting items that are suitable for display. “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” currently features items connected to the impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – both of whom were acquitted by the Senate – and to President Richard Nixon, who resigned before an impeachment vote.

The most interesting objects are also the largest: the black robe with gold striped sleeves that Chief Justice William Rehnquist wore to Clinton’s impeachment trial and a damaged metal file cabinet that belonged to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In 1971, a group tied to the Nixon administration broke into the medical office seeking information to discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media. The break-in preceded the more famous Watergate burglary.

Grinspan hopes to add items connected to the Trump impeachment, although he’s not optimistic that it will be as closely related to the charges at the centre of the proceedings as the Nixon-era Cabinet was in its day.

“We’re not going to get a Javelin missile, so how can we tell the story in other ways?” he asked, referring to the military aid Trump allegedly withheld from Ukraine to pressure the country to announce an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden.

As an expert on 19th Century history and author of a book on the importance of the youth vote in the 1800s, Grinspan is most interested in the connections between Johnson’s impeachment and the current trial and how they reflect the mood and tensions of their times. Johnson’s clash with Congress was rooted in conflicting views of Reconstruction and race in post-Civil War America. Similarly, Grinspan said, the current impeachment reflects the country’s divisions and the outsize role that political campaigns now have in American culture.

Grinspan will continue his search during February’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and this summer at the Democratic and Republican conventions, where the lasting impact of this winter’s trial should start to become apparent. He can’t predict when the museum’s display will be updated, but work is underway to change labels and add items.

“It’s easy to focus on DC, but this is a national story,” he said. “Impeachment doesn’t end with the trial. It’s the legacy of the president, and it relates to the party of the president.”

To tell the story that endures, he will keep his audience in mind. “We are collecting for the American people,” he said. “That’s who we work for.