How to Decolonize the Capitol

Art historians, legislators, and activists have long decried themes of White supremacy in the art collection of the U.S. Capitol. Can this place be decolonized?

Allegorical scene of George Washington enthroned in heaven, surrounded by angels and Congressmen.
Constantino Brumidi, Apotheosis of George Washington (1865); United States Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-SA 2.0]

Since the 1820s, generations of Congressmen have participated in a long-running, open-ended curatorial project within the U.S. Capitol that tells the story of America as they see it. (I say “men,” as the endeavor has been led almost entirely by men.) Over the decades, elements of this permanent exhibition have changed. Some sculptures have been taken down, others have been replaced, and as recently as the 1970s, a major cycle of paintings was commissioned that spans three corridors in the wing occupied by the House of Representatives. But, for the most part, it turns out that Congressmen across 200 years have shared an unusually strong curatorial vision.

Like all art commissioned for courts or governments, paintings and statuary in the Capitol make heroes of their patrons, while ignoring histories that would tarnish such reputations.

Like all artwork commissioned for governments or courtiers, the paintings and statuary in the Capitol make heroes of their patrons, while ignoring or misrepresenting individuals or entire groups whose histories, if accurately recounted, would tarnish the putative heroism of the governing class. People of color are nearly absent in the collection; women appear only sporadically, and Native peoples are pictured again and again graciously accepting, even welcoming, settler colonialist takeover of Indigenous lands. Intrepid White male figures, in contrast, are everywhere — in doublets, breeches, and stockings; in top hats and tricornes and Pilgrim’s capotains; in cavalier boots, ankle boots, and brogues; in military tunics with epaulets. They sit confidently astride horses; stand at attention in neat lines; lean casually against cannons. They cut timber, hoe fields, thresh wheat, and forge horseshoes. They build railroads, steamboats, and houses; sign documents; and debate policy in large amicable groups. So crowded is this building with representations of White male bodies that the Rotunda alone contains about 400 figures. A single painting hanging there, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (1826), depicts 36 of them, cheek by jowl, each face unique.

Marble hall with history painting and tourists behind velvet ropes.
Interior of the Capitol Rotunda, showing two paintings by John Trumbull: Declaration of Independence (1826), and Surrender of General Burgoyne (1826). Photographed 2014. [R. Boed via Flickr under license CC BY-2.0]

Painting of calvary troops in Revolutionary War.
John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1826), Capitol Rotunda. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Explorer on horseback confronting party of Indigenous people on the shore of a river.
William H. Powell, Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto (1855); Capitol Rotunda. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Congress’s version of the American story reflects the Congressmen who commissioned these works, which may be unsurprising. Yet it’s worth pausing for a moment to absorb what it means, in particular, for the Capitol to display so many likenesses of White men who came from states that fought to secede from the Union, many of whom were themselves enslavers — and, at the same time, to celebrate so few Black historical figures. In the civic hearts of the building, the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall, the ratio of Confederates to African Americans is five to two. Overall, of more than a thousand human figures memorialized in ceremonial public spaces around the Capitol, about two percent are Black.

If the Capitol were not open to the public and functioned instead like C-suite executive quarters, lawmakers’ art-related choices might not constitute a political issue. The collection in this case could be seen as a private vanity project. But the Capitol is, among other things, a history museum that bills itself as “a place where we tell the stories of what it means to be a citizen of the United States.” 1 Before the building closed due to the pandemic, the Capitol was one of Washington, D.C.’s leading attractions. With 2.4 million visitors per year, it was on par with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, conducting 40,000 guided tours annually; in the District, only three museums had higher annual attendance (the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of American History). The complex can accommodate this traffic due to a $600 million expansion, completed in 2008, which added 580,000 square feet to deliver a mega-museum “Capitol experience” with exhibition galleries, a theater, a restaurant, and a gift shop. 2 This is an ambitious, well-resourced ideological project begun over two centuries ago, which continues to shape public memory and to (seek to) define American identity today.

This is an ambitious ideological project begun over two centuries ago, which continues to shape public memory and to (seek to) define American identity today.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 160 Confederate monuments, markers, and symbols in 20 states were removed or renamed in 2020, and another 70 monuments were removed in 2021. 3 In September 2021, the 60-foot-tall Robert E. Lee memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond was hoisted by crane and carried away into storage; it will go to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. A few months afterwards, activists toppled a monument to Father Junipero Serra on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento; it will be replaced with a monument to regional Native tribes, which include the Nisenan, Maidu, Miwok, and Patwin Wintun peoples. In New York earlier this year, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by a Native man and an African man on foot, was removed from the steps of the American Museum of Natural History. Around the country, new works are being commissioned by schools, universities, towns, cities, and states; actions are being recommend regarding statues, markers, murals, seals, flags, and the names of buildings, streets, highways, bridges, and tunnels, not to mention sports teams.

Large crowd with banners in central museum hall.
Activists lead the 3rd annual “Anti-Columbus Day Tour” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, October 8, 2018. [Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News]

When Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native Americans in National and Tribal Museums was published in 2012, the conversation around museum decolonization was still emerging. Ten years later, it has become nearly impossible for museums of any size to ignore this discourse and its implications for their collections policies, interpretive materials, public programs, and staff makeup. Institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin are repatriating objects or human remains that were stolen or seized by looters or colonial authorities. Curators are reframing collections and institutional histories in the context of colonialism and the economies of slavery; they are relabeling art and artifacts in consultation with community knowledge keepers; commissioning counter-colonial and antiracist projects from contemporary artists; and deepening partnerships with constituencies of color. Some museums (including the Brooklyn Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Met) are creating staff positions for directors of diversity, equity, and inclusion, whose task it is to ensure that such values are inculcated across the institution at every level.

What kinds of interventions might make this site more truly representative? Who are the publics addressed by these artworks?

Meanwhile, at the Capitol, changes underway or being considered are so incremental that it would take generations to catch up with what is happening in places like Decatur, Minneapolis, and Newton. Perhaps, in comparison to voter-suppression efforts, the erosion of abortion rights, and the climate crisis, this feels secondary — it’s art, not life. Yet such officially sanctioned regimes of representation are deeply consequential. Historian Eric Hobsbawm describes the “invented traditions” — practices, rituals, stories, and symbols, including national anthems and flags — that even in modern nations establish a sense of social cohesion and legitimize “relations of authority.” 4 National identity is invented and perpetuated in this way, and so is race. Commemorative art and national art collections are pillars in this system; they define national (and racial) identity, and inscribe these imaginaries into public, civic, and even domestic space, reifying hierarchies of power in the present and on into the future.

Men in red MAGA hats in Capitol Rotunda
January 6, 2021 — insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. [Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images]

Ever since John Trumbull was commissioned to paint four monumental history paintings for the Rotunda in 1817, Congressmen have used the Capitol Art Collection to tell a simple and seductive story — indeed, given its location, the official story — about America. Like all forms of government propaganda, this artwork was designed to justify and to persuade, laundering ideological positions into “history.” But as the federal government diversifies, this story will likely be challenged more forcefully than it has been in the past. Nearly a quarter of the 117th Congress, which came into office in 2022, comprises lawmakers who identify as racial and/or ethnic minorities, making this Congress the most diverse in history.

New curators are waiting in the wings who will want to use this collection to establish and legitimize their own invented traditions. 5 Decolonial museum practice describes a range of self-critical endeavors that acknowledge museums’ participation in colonial rule and economies of extraction — sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, depending on the collection and its history — and aim to cede or redistribute institutional power to groups who have previously been harmed by or excluded from such cultural bastions. Applying these considerations to the Capitol Art Collection, what kinds of interventions might make this site more truly representative of the country and its promise? Who gets to decide what kind of art goes into this building, how it is installed, and how it is interpreted to the public? Indeed, who are the publics addressed by these artworks? Big commemorations can be opportune times for change. With the 250th anniversary of the country’s founding coming in 2026, the next few years are the right time to launch this conversation. We can begin the work of reimagining the Capitol now.

The Capitol has welcomed the public since its completion. Free to walk the halls and observe chamber debates from the balconies, visitors could inspect the premises and pull Senators and Representatives into conversation. 6 Congressmen didn’t have offices, so they met with constituents wherever they could find space in the hallways and Rotunda, which is also known as the “Hall of the People.” Over the last half century, however, access has been increasingly restricted and visits museumized. Before the pandemic closed the building to the public in March 2020, tours began in the state-of-the-art subterranean theater with a short film about the country’s history, followed by a 30-to-40-minute walk through select parts of the complex, conducted by guides in red blazers. Washington’s museums began to reopen in the summer of 2021, yet the Capitol remains closed for public tours as of this writing, offering only virtual tours and other online programs. A cynic might say that the transformation is complete: What was once a site of broad participation in direct democracy has flattened into media that consumers view online.

A cynic might say the transformation is complete: What was once a site of participation in direct democracy has flattened into media consumed online.

The Capitol was begun in 1793, finished in 1800, and rebuilt after it was set on fire during the War of 1812. It has been modified and expanded since, of course, but it took the shape that it now has early on. The Rotunda was always envisioned as a site of public memory and national storytelling. The original plan called for a glass floor that would allow sightseers to peer two levels down into George Washington’s crypt — which was intended to be placed in the Capitol, though ultimately it was not — making the hall a pilgrimage site for contact with sacred relics. A later design proposed reliefs in niches depicting 24 heroes of the Revolutionary War. Finally, between 1817 and 1855, Trumbull and several other artists were commissioned to create the work in the Rotunda today: a series of eight large oil paintings showing Columbus’ landing, Henry De Soto’s “discovery” of the Mississippi River, the embarkation of Pilgrims from Holland, the baptism of Pocahontas, two battle scenes from the American Revolution, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and the resignation of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief.

Classical dome with clerestory windows and grisaille frieze.
Interior of the Capitol Rotunda, showing part of The Frieze of American History (1877-1889; 1951-1953). Photographed 2009. [Shaun Farrell via Flickr under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Grisaille painting showing Indians and Pilgrims.
Constantino Brumidi, “William Penn and the Indians, 1682″ (ca 1878-1880), The Frieze of American History, Capitol Rotunda. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Grisaille painting showing Indians and Pilgrims.
Filippo Costaggini, “Oglethorpe and the Indians, 1732” (ca. 1889); The Frieze of American History, Capitol Rotunda. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Another series of relief panels above these paintings and over the Rotunda’s four doorways depict early explorers and scenes from colonial history, and above that, more than 50 feet off the ground, a grisaille frieze titled The Frieze of American History circles the drum of the dome with nineteen scenes of national mythmaking, from the arrival of Columbus through the 1903 flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. (The Frieze was begun by Constantino Brumidi in 1877 and continued in the 1889s by Filippo Costaggini, with three last panels added by Allyn Cox in 1951.) Flanking doorways and placed between the paintings are statues of nine former presidents, along with Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a group sculpture of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. On the ceiling of the dome, Brumidi’s Apotheosis of Washington (1865) shows the Founding Father enthroned in the heavens, surrounded by allegorical figures representing strength and industry.

This is a space, then, that is dense with narratives of divinely ordained conquest and White male heroism. Given the number of individual works and the fact that some 25 artists have contributed to this site across a span of time nearly coincident with the life of the nation, it is notable how neatly this unified vision can be broken down into three iconographic categories and their associated ideological propositions. These propositions are 1) European explorers  such as Columbus or Sir Walter Raleigh, conceived as the advance guard for settlers who arrived a century later, exercised a legitimate claim to North American lands; 2) Native peoples accepted and indeed actively legitimized colonization; and 3) the Founding Fathers represent our semi-sacred origin, remaining the essential allegorical figures who bind together our notion of “America” with both the principles and the history of democracy.

My exchanges with Capitol staff revealed little urgency, little sense that the collection was connected to anger and activism in the streets.

Art historian Vivien Green Fryd writes that artwork commissioned for the collection in the 19th century “served to legitimize congressional legislation” that was being debated contemporaneously, in order to justify and promote “[W]hite male politicians’ imperialistic ideals and actions.” 7 The commissioning of work for the Rotunda coincided with the height of the federal government’s efforts to seize Indigenous lands: The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the relocation of tribes west of the Mississippi River, resulting in the deaths of some 4,000 Cherokees along the Trail of Tears; in the 1840s, Texas, Oregon, and California were annexed; and in the 1850s, the reservation system was established. 8 William Truettner, Curator Emeritus of 18th and 19th Century American Painting and Sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Patricia Hills, an art historian at Boston University, note that much of the Congressional collection comprises “expansionist pictures” commissioned to support “expansionist priorities.” 9

Such critical context is not provided to visitors who stream through the Rotunda every day, or visit virtually. It is not given, either, in other spaces at the Capitol where commemorative artwork is installed. National Statuary Hall, next to the Rotunda, contains part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, created in 1864 as a way for each state to honor or commemorate two figures of importance (Thomas Edison and President James A. Garfield from Ohio; Roger Williams and Revolutionary war hero Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island, for example). The Senate wing’s Brumidi Corridors are decorated with paintings and frescoes depicting American flora and fauna, as well as allegorical subjects (such as Authority Consults the Written Law, 1875), which were installed by Constantino Brumidi in the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s. 10 The Cox Corridors in the House wing were painted by Allyn Cox between 1973 and 1994, with wall and ceiling murals memorializing scenes from the signing of the Mayflower Compact to a women’s suffrage parade — the latter being the only panel in Cox’s sixteen-part cycle to depict female protagonists.

Allegorical scene of seated woman consulting large book held by bearded man.
Constantino Brumidi, Authority Consults the Written Law (1875); Brumidi Corridors, Senate wing. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Christopher Columbus lifts the veil of a seated woman.
Constantino Brumidi, Columbus and the Indian Maiden (1875); Brumidi Corridors, Senate wing. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, I spoke or corresponded with a range of Congressional staff who manage the collection and its interpretive apparatus, including the Curator of the U.S. Capitol, curators or staff who oversee the holdings of the House of Representatives and the Senate (separate collections displayed in the respective Congressional wings), and others who manage tours and related programming, including the former Director of Visitor Services, the Public Program Coordinator, the director of family programs, and a spokesperson for the office of the Architect of the Capitol or AOC, the Congressional agency that houses all these endeavors. These conversations began in September 2020, just as a Kentucky grand jury declined to charge the officers involved in the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Confederate statues were being removed in Charlottesville, Virginia; Bentonville, Arkansas; and Anniston, Alabama. Black Lives Matter protests that had begun in May with the murder of George Floyd were reignited. Many museums released vague statements on social media during that long summer, but within several months, others had acknowledged the urgent need for change, pledging to hire and promote more BIPOC staff and to diversify their boards (the Met and the Getty); to create exhibitions and programs that address issues of race and racism (LACMA); or to undertake audits of their exhibition and collection history through the lens of racial equity (the Guggenheim).

But my exchanges with Capitol staff revealed little urgency, little sense that the collection was connected in any way to anger and activism in the streets. I asked the AOC spokesperson, Laura Condeluci, several times whether BLM protests and the national conversation around White supremacy and public art might lead to new programming or policies at the Capitol, but she had no response. This is in contrast to Parliament in the U.K., for instance, which since summer 2020 has initiated an audit of all artworks in their collection that “depict subjects relating to Black, Asian and other ethnic minority history and life,” as well as figures associated with the slave trade, while undertaking a critical revision of labels, guides, and other interpretive materials, and establishing policies to increase the representation of “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority peoples” in the collection. 11

For Native scholars like Lonetree, decolonization in museums “is linked to the larger movements of self-determination and cultural sovereignty.” 12 Such links are especially strong at the Capitol, where accounts of the past, as delivered on tours and in object labels and other explanatory materials, can be understood as official government statements — and, as such, might conceivably shift the frames of debate on issues like reparations, were these accounts themselves to evolve. This is not to say that museum decolonization in and of itself constitutes restitution. On the contrary, there is a growing body of criticism regarding this turn in museum practice that sees such changes as essentially performative. 13 It is to say that museums play a significant role in formalizing social and racial identity and power hierarchies through their collections — hence their importance in the colonial project — and that advances in legal rights and sovereignty will be reflected in our art, museums, and heritage sites. Like all campaigns, this one must be fought on multiple fronts; as art historians like Sarah Elizabeth Lewis have argued, representations play such a central role in changing our perception about race and racial hierarchies that contesting or replacing them advances the expansion of civil and legal rights. 14

Reconceiving the Capitol as a contact zone would recognize that we are all engaged, whether we realize it or not, in negotiating these histories.

In the meantime, it might be productive to think about what could be achieved at the Capitol in the short term — about how we might imagine a transformation of this site from a nationalistic shrine into a “contact zone.” As theorized by historian James Clifford, a contact zone is an area both literal and conceptual, in which tribal and settler communities come together to share perspectives and negotiate difficult histories. 15 Reconceiving the Capitol in this way would recognize the fact that, as Americans, we are all engaged, whether we realize it or not, in what Clifford calls an “ongoing contact history.” Our actions today continue to shape the direction of settler colonialism and racial apartheid on these lands. 16

Marble hall with portrait statues.
National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, photographed 2008. [Adam Fagen via Flickr under license BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Small metal bust of MLK beside large history painting.
John Wilson, bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986) in the Capitol Rotunda, alongside Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir (1843) and Dwight D. Eisenhower by Jim Brothers (2003). Photographed 2008. [Adam Fagen via Flickr under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Moving the focus from historical events to present-day relations would have significant implications. A true contact zone requires some level of shared authority, and shared authority at this site would necessitate a multitude of changes, including increasing diversity among curatorial staff and tour guides; enabling public input into programs and policies; introducing co-authored educational materials that could problematize what is represented; expanding the collection to include a wider range of viewpoints; and allowing tribal and community groups to stage their own events. Does this sound too radical for the Capitol? If so, why? Why would we assume that it’s more reasonable to continue as things are?

If protecting the status quo seems to be the unreasonable course of action, let’s ask what change would look like at the Capitol, and how it might be accomplished. There are two ways to think about this question. The first imagines change led from the inside, by Congress and Congressional staff. The second anticipates change led from outside, by activists and constituencies who want to go farther than Congress might, and much more quickly. On the inside, several current initiatives are intended to chip away at the collection’s monumental White supremacy. An act was introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Barbara Lee in 2017 to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol. It failed, but was reintroduced in 2021; it passed the House, although it has not gone to the Senate at the time of this writing. Some states, including Florida and Virginia, are replacing their statues in the National Statuary Hall, though these changes take time; state legislatures must approve such plans, agree on replacements, and commission artists to produce the new sculptures. Currently, eight statues of Confederates remain on display.

In contrast, since the British Parliament launched its audit two years ago, five updates have been released, considering more than 450 individual works owned by and displayed in Parliament, detailing depicted figures’ connections to slavery, the slave trade, and the abolition movement. In contrast to the reticence of Capitol staff, Melissa Hamnett, Head of Heritage Collections and Chief Curator at the Palace of Westminster, put it succinctly in June 2020: “We have to recognize that many of our collections have a racist history.” 17

There are two ways to think about what change might look like. The first imagines it led from within, by Congress. The second anticipates change led from outside.

There is also an effort underway in Congress to push the AOC to undertake a review of artwork that depicts Native Americans, and to reconsider the recounting of Native histories on official tours. The call for review was initiated in 2020 by then-Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico (a member of the Pueblo of Laguna), before she was named Interior Secretary. Haaland formalized the audit request by adding a report to the 2020 legislative spending bill, in which she suggested the provision of interpretive information to correct “the sometimes incomplete or incorrect depictions of Native Americans portrayed in historical artwork in the [Capitol] complex.” The report asked the AOC to work with Native American historians and professionals at the National Museum of the American Indian to “ensure that the Capitol complex more accurately and respectfully represents the history of Native Americans.” 18

Painting of the landing of Christopher Columbus, showing central figures shrouded in wrapped and bunched canvas.
Titus Kaphar, Columbus Day Painting (2014), after John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus (1847), which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. [Karl Steel via Flickr, under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

When I asked Condeluci, the AOC spokesperson, about agency response to this request, all she would say is that “an advisory group consisting of Native American scholars, board members of the National Museum of the American Indian, museum educators, curators, legal experts and Congressional representatives” has been created “to assist us in the interpretation of images of Native Americans in Capitol art.” Despite multiple email queries between October 2019 and February 2020, she would not share a list of people serving on this committee, explain how often they have met and will continue to meet, or describe the tasks with which they have been charged. Because it is a branch agency of Congress, and Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the AOC cannot be FOIA’d — unlike the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and at least 120 other federal agencies and departments.

What kinds of change might be led from the outside, then? One tactic is old-fashioned activist demonstrations, which have become more common at museums and other heritage sites as projects and collectives like Decolonize This Place, Take ’Em Down NOLA, Museums Are Not Neutral, MASS Action, Museums Respond to Ferguson, and IllumiNative have sprung up to pressure cultural facilities to remove White supremacist monuments and commit to antiracist policies and actions. Any one of these groups could launch a campaign at the Capitol. In the past, Native alliances like the National Congress of American Indians, the Society for American Indian Government Employees, and Federally Employed Women have supported their members’ efforts to lobby Congress into removing public art in federal buildings that centers on degrading racial stereotypes. Any of these organizations could demand a review of and/or hearings about the Capitol Art Collection on behalf of staff who work in the building — especially Native female staff, who may find that depictions of naked, subservient, sexually available Indigenous women in the hallways of the Capitol create a hostile workplace.

The Black Women’s Empowerment March, Washington, D.C., September 12, 2020. [Allison C Bailey/Alamy]

Comparable calls have been issued in at least a few other instances. In 2004, the National Congress of American Indians and the Society of American Indian Government Employees petitioned the General Services Administration to consider removal of a mural in the Ariel Rios Building on these grounds. This bid was unsuccessful. But, in the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians did succeed when they argued for the removal of two large statues at the Capitol. Installed in 1850, these sculptures once flanked the building’s East Entrance; in one, an inhumanly tall White male settler restrains a pint-sized Native man wearing a loincloth and holding a tomahawk; in the other, a triumphant Columbus holds a small globe while, next to him, a Native woman crosses her arms protectively over her breasts, her loincloth slipping off her hips. The campaign against these works was waged by Native activist Leta Myers Smart (Omaha). The two objects were finally removed in 1958 and are now in storage at the Smithsonian (though one was dropped in 1976 and is apparently in pieces). 19 Outside activism, in other words, has succeeded in the past.

In the meantime, there may be other creative ways to reinterpret this collection, strategies that don’t require Congressional responsiveness. We can think about this as a people’s curatorial project, or guerrilla public history — an effort to make the Capitol #OurCapitol by editing, updating and expanding the collection to reflect the country today. With that in mind, we can imagine a new website with online exhibitions and public programs that critically reinterpret the collection, and a downloadable guidebook that visitors could use (when the building reopens) as an alternative or a supplement to official tours. We can imagine IRL events and exhibitions in galleries and museums across the country that participate in this revisionist project by commissioning or exhibiting artwork that responds to the Capitol’s collection, or by organizing counter-historical programs that celebrate communities whose histories have been whitewashed there. Groups like Museum Hack offer “renegade” tours of the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Getty; #OurCapitol guides might similarly run tours outside the building. Theoretically, counter-tours could also run inside, although private tour guides must be accredited by the AOC.

We can think about this as a people’s curatorial project or guerrilla public history — an effort to make the Capitol #OurCapitol.

Some artists have started to remix the Capitol’s Art Collection on their own. Titus Kaphar’s Columbus Day Painting (2014), exhibited at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in 2018 and 2019, takes John Vanderlyn’s triumphant Landing of Columbus (1847), which hangs in the Rotunda, as a starting point — but Kaphar shrouds the explorers in heavy, constricting cloth, turning the scene’s background Native figures into its protagonists. In 2019, the documentary filmmaker Arlen Parsa reworked another painting in the Rotunda, Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence (1826); in a digital collage circulated on Twitter, Parsa placed a red dot over the face of every man in the picture who, in life, had enslaved people. It’s a lot of dots: 34 of the 47 figures are marked by them. The building itself was the subject of Robert Longo’s Capitol (2013), a seven-panel charcoal drawing that stretches about 40 feet when installed. Longo casts the structure as something from a gothic horror film, with darkened windows under a black sky.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence with most faces covered by red dots.
Arlen Parsa, Declaration of Independence Revisited (2019), digital manipulation of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence (1826), which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. [Courtesy Arlen Parsa]

Contemporary painting of native people rescuing drowning Europeans, hung in marble museum lobby beside monumental Egyptian sculpture.
Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Welcoming the Newcomers (2019), installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020. [Hrag Vartanian via Flickr under license CC BY-ND 2.0]

In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art commissioned Toronto-based artist Kent Monkman (Cree) to create a monumental diptych, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) — one panel is titled Welcoming the Newcomers and the other is Resurgence of the People — to hang in the museum’s Great Hall in Manhattan, where visitors wait to check coats and pay for admission, or study floorplans at the information booth. The immense paintings, which pay tribute to the strength and generosity of Indigenous peoples in the face of desperate, scurvy-stricken European arrivals, addressed museumgoers upon arrival and departure, and thus had the symbolic first and last words on the Met’s global collection — at least for the four months during which they were on view. Imagine a project that invited artists across the country to create such counter-hegemonic works at the Capitol. If Congress remains unwilling to welcome such public humanities projects into their halls, exhibitions should be held nevertheless — virtually, offsite, or even onsite but outside, using projection, reproductions and replicas, sound-based projects, and performance. (Remember the projections by artist Robin Bell on the Trump International Hotel in 2018?)

Commentary by a contemporary Lenape leader might describe broken treaties. The recurring themes of submission and victimization could be addressed.

What might a counter-hegemonic online public history tour of the Capitol look like? Beginning in the Rotunda, visitors who downloaded the app (or those who wanted to take the full tour virtually) could hear members of Piscataway Indian Nation or the Piscataway Conoy Tribe speak about the Nacotchtank, the original inhabitants of this land beside the Potomac River. They might then pause before a relief by Nicholas Gavelot titled William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1827), or Brumidi’s William Penn and the Indians (1878-80), a scene in The Frieze of American History. Each depicts the signing of the Treaty of Shackamaxon between the Quaker settler and representatives of the Lenape people, the first tribe to sign a treaty with the newly formed United States. Both works center on gestures of Native approval — a firm handshake between Penn and a muscular Lenape man in Gavelot’s work, and the gesture of a young Lenape warrior in Brumidi’s painting, who leans over the shoulder of one of Penn’s men, pointing to the document with a gentle smile. (“This treaty formalized the purchase of land in Pennsylvania and cemented an amicable relationship between the Quakers and the Indians for almost a hundred years,” states the page on the AOC website dedicated to this portion of the Frieze. 20 ) Commentary by a contemporary Lenape leader might describe the breaking of this treaty by Penn’s descendants in the 1730s, and the eventual displacement of the Lenape westward, moving on to discuss the federal government’s long history of broken treaties with Native peoples, and the cultural work that representations such as those by Gavelot and Brumidi have done and continue to do in legitimizing settler-colonial land claims.

Four people working in cotton field.
Allyn Cox, Sharecroppers (1993-1994); Cox Corridors, House wing. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Painting of the driving of the Golden Spike.
Allyn Cox, Golden Spike (1993-1994); Cox Corridors, House wing. The fourth man from the left in the front row wears clothing similar to that of 19th-century Chinese laborers. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Painting of men working with molten metal.
Allyn Cox, Iron Foundry, 1850 (1982); Cox Corridors, House wing. The three Black men at right are operating a cotton gin. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

In addition to such comments on specific works, the tour could include testimonials from contemporary Native activists along with narration about historic and contemporary Native acts of resistance, such as the Seminole Wars between 1816 and 1858; the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969; or the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 2016–2017. Reflections might also be offered by contemporary artists and writers on what they would add to these spaces if they had the chance. The Brumidi Corridors in the Senate wing would be opportune for such reflections, as blank lozenges remain here on walls that were left unfinished when worked stopped on the commission in 1860. A few of these blanks have been filled in (the most recent painting, added by Charles Schmidt in 1987, is a memorial group portrait of the crew on the space shuttle Challenger), but many are still available. What would the poet Amanda Gorman add to these lacunae? How about artists Kara Walker, Roberto Lugo, Judy Baca, Alan Michelson, Jeffrey Gibson, or Wendy Red Star?

Across the last two years, as I was speaking to staffers in the AOC’s office, I also talked with a dozen or so current and former Capitol tour guides about their work. Many clearly loved the Capitol and felt that guiding was a form of national service, but some of the stories they shared were difficult to tell, difficult to hear, and clearly had been difficult to experience. Brock Thompson, for instance, moved to Washington in 2006 with a PhD in American Studies from King’s College London, and conducted tours for two years during a downturn in the academic job market. He recalled that it was painful to take groups that included Black families through the building, because “they can only see themselves once, and it’s a very small bust on the side.” The bronze of Martin Luther King, Jr., by John Wilson, measures just over three feet tall (on a five-and-a-half-foot plinth) and was installed in the Rotunda in 1986.

There was one instance when I had a predominantly African-American group from a Washington, D.C. school, and I had to bring it up. Because it was like, okay, we have here the bust of Martin Luther King, and one father, he was like, ‘Is that it? Is that it?’ I’ll never forget it. And as far as women, you’ve got … the Pocahontas painting where she’s literally on her knees. And the next stop is Statuary Hall where you had a statue of [Confederate officers] Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stevens looking at each other. How am I supposed to excuse that? 22

I asked Thompson him what he thought visitors took from their tour. Some felt a sense of “pride,” he said. But others left “with a mixed bag of emotions: shame, anger, resentment at not being able to see yourself in this.”

Reflections might be offered by contemporary artists and writers on what they would add to these spaces if they had the chance.

Ara Carbonneau (Choctaw) gave thousands of tours before she left D.C. to pursue a PhD in American History at the University of Iowa. She told me that it had been gratifying to see some states replace their contributions to Statuary Hall with portraits of Native leaders (there are now eight likenesses of Native people out of 100 works). But, she added, many other newer pieces aren’t displayed in prominent areas. “When I’m bringing Indigenous people into the building for a private tour, let’s say for tribal leaders,” she told me, “there’s a deflation that hits when I’m having to take them up a back elevator, what basically looks like a freight elevator, to see some of their most honored leaders.” 23

Statue of allegorical figure dressed in toga with a feather headdress.
Thomas Crawford, Statue of Freedom (1863), Capitol Dome. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY 2.0]

Woman in white gown kneeling at the feet of a priest; a crowd looks on.
John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas (1839), in the Capitol Rotunda. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Between 1981 and 2003, Peter Byrd gave over 13,000 tours. He had majored in American history at the University of North Carolina and intended to return to his high school to teach, but was hooked by the Capitol. For him, the work was a calling. At the end of a busy day, he explained, “you just crawled home. I remember one time one of my colleagues saying, ‘I sat down in the kitchen, and stared at the wall for two hours.’ And we could all relate to it.” In his busiest-ever week, in April 1981, he gave 50 tours in five days.

One moment that stayed with Byrd was the tour he conducted for a group of Navajo veterans who had served as Code Talkers during World War II. The group, which included veterans’ families, numbered about 50, and a woman asked Byrd about the allegorical statue topping the Dome. This is a monumental bronze by Thomas Crawford, a classical female figure representing freedom (1863). Her helmet is decorated with feathers, and visitors often read her as Native American. Byrd remembered asking himself, “How do I present this so it doesn’t leave them feeling like I punched them in the gut?” When he corrected the mistake, he said, the visitors were “deflated.” 24 Carbonneau had described her group’s disappointment in precisely the same terms. The mission of the AOC Visitor Center is “Working together for Congress to inform, involve and inspire every visitor to the United States Capitol.” 25 In reality, the Capitol creates conditions that spark anger, resentment, and sorrow for visitors, staff, and even elected representatives.

Elaborately painted marble-floored corridor.
The Brumidi Corridors in the Senate wing, showing empty diamond-shaped black panels that could be filled in with contemporary art. [Architect of the Capitol via Flickr, in the public domain]

Byrd emphasized to me that the lack of representation of people of color in the Capitol Collection was “something we were always dealing with.” Guides used to talk the issue through together, he explained, asking “How do we make this place feel relevant for people?” The strategy they agreed on was to “appreciate it as an historic structure.” That didn’t always work. He recalls the time that he took a group of mostly older Black visitors through the building. One man would snicker or sigh loudly as the tour unfolded, and when they reached the Rotunda, Byrd addressed him directly. “Sir,” he remembers saying, “You seem angry at everything I’m saying. I’m the messenger here, whether it’s good or bad, I’m just representing what’s here.” The other visitors wanted to hear the rest of Byrd’s presentation, but the man stepped out of the group and went to sit on a bench in the Rotunda until it was over.

When Byrd shared this story, it registered as a moment of impasse. Later, I came to understand the man’s decision to sit out the remainder of the tour as a protest action. There are, of course, thousands of such stories that tour guides could tell, and countless acts of day-to-day resistance in this building’s history, stretching back to the time of its construction. Did enslaved and immigrant laborers and artisans who built the Capitol occasionally break tools, damage materials, or otherwise use sabotage to resist their conditions? Are there other ways in which artists, Congresspeople, Congressional staff, and/or visitors have refused to accept the terms of citizenship that the art collection offers? When the Capitol was besieged on January 6, 2021, the mob, nearly all White, shouted “Whose house? Our house!” Some were carrying Confederate flags. To many others who watched the violence unfold in the media, the claim didn’t register as unfounded. We could look at the paintings and sculpture in the background, and see that it was so.

  1. Video Tour of the U.S. Capitol, at and on YouTube.
  2. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, “The project was financed with appropriated funds and $65 million from private donations and revenue generated by the sale of commemorative coins.” “The Capitol Visitor Center: History, Development, and Funding” (pdf), March 8, 2012.
  3. “2020 Confederate Symbol Removals,” Southern Poverty Law Center.
  4. The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 7-9.
  5. Katherine Schaeffer, “Racial, Ethnic Diversity Increases Yet Again with the 117th Congress,” Pew Research Center, January 28, 2021.
  6. Guy Gugliotta, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 11.
  7. Vivien Green Fryd, Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815-1865 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 4-5.
  8. Fryd, Art and Empire, 4.
  9. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, ed. William H. Truettner (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1991), 117 and 72.
  10. An Italian painter and fresco specialist, Brumidi came to the United States when he was 50. He was hired by Captain Montgomery Meigs, supervising engineer of the Capitol’s expansion and decoration in the 1850s and 1860s, because of his proficiency with fresco; Brumidi has been called “the Michelangelo of the Capitol,” and he worked on interior commissions there until his death in 1880. In addition to the Brumidi Corridors, he painted Apotheosis of Washington, and completed most of The Frieze of American History. See Gugliotta; Pamela Scott, Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi, Artist of the Capitol (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998).
  11. UK Parliament, “Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art announces review plans of Parliamentary Art Collection,” October 2, 2020.
  12. Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 1.
  13. For a critical take on the limits of decolonization practice, see Huey Copeland, Hal Foster, David Joselit, and Pamela M. Lee, “A Questionnaire on Decolonization,” October No. 174 (Fall 2020),
  14. See Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, “Vision & Justice” Special Issue, Aperture 223 (2016).
  15. James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 188-219.
  16. Clifford, 193.
  17. Melissa Hamnett quoted in Rajeev Syal, “We must confront racist history of UK parliament’s art, says curator,” The Guardian, June 19, 2020.
  18. House of Representatives, Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (116th Congress, 2020), 19.
  19. C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, “A Curious Removal: Leta Myers Smart, The Rescue, and The Discovery of America,” The Capitol Dome: A Magazine of History Published by the United States Capitol Historical Society 52:1 (Spring 2015), 2-9.
  20. William Penn and the Indians,
  21. Two other severely problematic paintings from this point of view include a scene in which a Muskogee delegation offers a buffalo skin to James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, in The Frieze of American History — the group is led by a bare-breasted woman who kneels before Oglethorpe, her nipples visibly hard — and a small fresco, also by Brumidi, titled Columbus and the Indian Maiden (1875), which shows Columbus lifting the veil of a barefoot Indigenous woman seated before him on a bench-like rock, her breasts revealed under a gauzy wrap, the torque of her body suggesting either that she has been caught by surprise from behind, or is turning away to shield herself. This panel is above the door to a meeting room used in the 1870s by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
  22. Brock Thompson, telephone interview with the author, October 13, 2020.
  23. Ara Carbonneau, telephone interview with the author, October 26, 2020.
  24. Peter Byrd, telephone interview with the author, October 27, 2020.
  25. About the Capitol Visitor Center,” website of the Architect of the Capitol.
Marisa Angell Brown, “How to Decolonize the Capitol,” Places Journal, June 2022. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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