Documenting the tragedy of 9/11 is a challenge for any museum curator, but history museums across Washington, D.C., are responding to the task by telling personal stories through artifacts.
In 2002, Congress designated the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History as the national repository for 9/11 materials. The exhibit highlights ways in which American lives have transformed since 9/11, in addition to displaying objects recovered from New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa.
From the steel beams of the World Trade Center and fragments of the Pentagon facade to relics of grief and eyewitness testimonials, many significant items have been recovered from the sites. Smaller local museums are sharing the history based on their organization’s mission and audience.
‘It gets a little depressing’
The National Guard Memorial Museum tells the story of the guardsmen on the front lines over the past decade. Some of the artifacts include a piece of the Pentagon wall, steel beams from the World Trade Center and a personal journal of a guardsman who assisted with the rescue and recovery in Lower Manhattan.
The collection is still being assembled and carefully selected. “We’re really trying to get the personal donations because it just lends to the story, and it just has a greater meaning,” said Cathleen Pearl, deputy director of the National Guard Educational Foundation.
As a member of the guard in 2001, Pearl has experience gathering artifacts and dealing with 9/11-related exhibits. “It gets a little depressing, actually,” she said, “It’s one of those things you have to take a breather from.”
Through their eyes
Although the National Law Enforcement Museum is not slated to open until late 2013, the museum is showcasing a special 9/11-history time capsule in its visitor’s center to mark the 10th anniversary. The museum is the first of its kind to tell the story of national law enforcement – including the story of the 72 officers killed in the attacks – from the perspective of police officers.
Behind-the-scenes-tours of the warehouse are available by request, and families regularly ask to visit the facility.
“Without exception, the people old enough to remember take the discussion from the educational and objective to the personal and emotional, and very often end up with tears in their eyes” said Vanya Scott, acting director of museum programs.
Among the collection is a Port Authority Police Department jacket worn by a first responder whose identity was only recently discovered. When Congress mandated the museum, law enforcement agencies across the country rushed to donate objects and some of them are not easily traced. The museum teamed with Port Authority to eventually identify the jacket’s owner – he survived the 9/11 attacks and retired from the force – and plans to document his oral history.
National Museum of American History
Dates: Sept. 3-11, 2011
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
National Guard Memorial Museum
Dates: Opening May 2012
National Law Enforcement Museum
Dates: Opening late 2013
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: Free to $21.95 plus tax depending on age
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Dates: Ongoing online gallery, or by special appointment.
Capturing the day’s news
The Newseum’s 9/11 exhibit features one main artifact—a piece of the communication antenna from the World Trade Center—surrounded by other artifacts and newspaper headlines from the days following the attacks.
“After a while people might just forget, but when you see the newspapers and you see something right in front of you that’s material, then you can really grasp it. Otherwise it’s something abstract that you don’t really have a connection to,” Jon Papp, a Philadelphia native, said.
The Newseum’s exhibit is permanent, but some visitors say that there may need to be an update in the next 10 years.
A different type of museum
Several months after 9/11, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent two historians and a museum curator to New York City to capture oral histories from rescuers and to document the federal examination and sorting process at the Staten Island Landfill where more than 1.5 million tons of debris from the twin towers was hauled.
“I tried to select objects that represent what happens when a 100-plus-story building goes down,” said Eric Reinert, curator for the effort who now leads a little-known museum for the Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Belvoir, Va.
FBI officials running the landfill gave dozens of artifacts to the Army Corps of Engineers for preservation. The public can view the permanent collection online at the Army Corps of Engineers website. Researchers and news media can request an appointment to view the 9/11 artifacts and any of the other 7,500 pieces of Army Corps history stored at the Alexandria facility.
Speaking about the Smithsonian’s decision to include damaged airline pieces and some of the last photographs ever taken by victims in its 9/11 first anniversary exhibit, Reinert said it was “too soon and too sensitive” to display certain objects in 2002.
“My job is to preserve raw history,” Reinert said. “My successors can choose what to do with it.”