Exhibit WTC

Dividing the Artifacts of September 11

"We are not the World Trade Center museum, but we do feel there is a strong public need to connect to the evidence of this event," explains Jan Ramirez, vice president of the NYHS. Ramirez points out that her institution has been especially careful with the memorial material, not putting anything on view without permission from the immediate family. "For some, it has been helpful to have their loved ones commemorated in a broader historic context," she says. "For others, it is way too soon."

As macabre as this rush to make history from a national tragedy may seem, Jim Gardner, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, notes that much of this effort is part of business as usual at history museums. "There are people who felt strongly about not moving too quickly—that we need more perspective," he acknowledges. "On the other hand, we were concerned about material disappearing if we don't act quickly." The Smithsonian regularly collects contemporaneously with political events, scientific breakthroughs, and natural catastrophes. The Department of Defense even has its own staff of curators to bring home artifacts from the front lines of military battles. And, Gardner points out, there are precedents for collecting memorials. The National Parks Service has gathered over 55,000 items from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of shrines left at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. The scale of the WTC tragedy is unprecedented, he explains, but not the role of curators and historians.

Despite apparent differences in timing and approach, all of the institutions involved are working closely to coordinate collecting and preservation efforts. "We are absolutely not in competitive collecting modes," asserts Macdonald. Meanwhile, Ramirez boasts that NYHS has already received donations of over 125 artifacts and 200 pieces of ephemera. "We live in a city whose citizens are so sophisticated and media savvy that within five hours of the attack, we received our first artifact—one of the dust masks handed out to Battery Park City residents."

Memorials, like those left at Union Square (below), are destined for museum display.
photo: Michael Kamber
Memorials, like those left at Union Square (below), are destined for museum display.

Macdonald, however, is concerned that, like a car wreck, these artifacts can attract attention for all the wrong reasons. It is appropriate, then, that MCNY has already engaged Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as its exhibition designer for the Tweed Courthouse. "He has tremendous skill and experience at using objects eloquently to tell a story," says Henry. "We don't know what those exhibitions are going to be ultimately, but I don't think it is a day that anyone is ever going to forget."

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