On the morning of September 11, the board of the Museum of the City of New York was meeting at its future home, the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street. Museum director Robert R. Macdonald was just about to unveil the renovation plans for the new center, scheduled to open in 2004, when he was interrupted. “We heard this thunderclap, and someone joked, ‘Boy, that’s an exclamation point!’ ” he recalls. A few minutes later, a security guard asked them to clear the building. On the street, the group witnessed people racing up Broadway, running from the clouds of smoke coming from the site of the World Trade Center.
Macdonald and his staff are trained to look at history, but not necessarily as eyewitnesses. They immediately realized the challenge and opportunities that the WTC disaster presented for a museum with MCNY’s particular mandate. On October 4 the museum, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, convened a meeting of representatives from 33 history museums, now loosely called “The 9-11 Consortium.” The collective includes many New York City institutions, from the New-York Historical Society to the little-known Skyscraper Museum; it also covers historical societies from New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Their immediate concern was how to cut through the mind-boggling bureaucracy—federal, state, and local—to gain access to material of historic importance.
A crushed ambulance, a pair of muddy boots, respirators and masks, dust from the window-sills of Battery Park City, even the clothes worn by Mayor Giuliani—these are among the 9-11 ephemera now being collected by history museums in anticipation of exhibitions commemorating the World Trade Center tragedy. The memorials left at Union Square are held in storage by the Parks Department, and the “Wall of Prayer” assembled outside Bellevue Hospital has already been donated to MCNY. According to Macdonald, the museums are playing a key role in coordinating preservation efforts by working closely with government agencies directly in charge of clean-up at ground zero and around the city, including the Department of Design and Construction, the Port Authority, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Parks Department, and the Fire Department. “We are trying to assure that there is coordination and that museums have an opportunity to see that the culture of the attack and the aftermath is preserved,” says Macdonald. “The challenge being that much of the materials are ephemeral and there is such an enormous amount of material that it is almost impossible to make judgments about what should be saved.”
What curators are looking for is the American equivalent of Shigeru’s Lunchbox, the melted tin box found with the body of a Japanese schoolboy after the A-bomb was dropped, now the quintessential icon of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “We are choosing objects that tell the human story, objects that speak eloquently through their presence,” explains Dr. Sarah Henry, vice president for programs at MCNY. “It is easy to see its power in retrospect, but it takes serendipity or enormous foresight to see the power of the object as events are unfolding.”
In general, MCNY has tried to take a judicious approach to exhibiting any 9-11 material in the near future, and has, in fact, gone out of its way to avoid controversy. One exhibition scheduled to open in November—”A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City”—was postponed until spring 2002, due to concern about response to the show in the overheated emotional climate in the nation this fall. Instead, the museum is rapidly assembling a replacement exhibition, “Manhattan Skylines,” tracing the history of Manhattan’s vista from 1850 to the present. Museum curator Bob Shamis has chosen to include images of the World Trade Center but not the attack itself. “We did not want to simply duplicate the journalistic documentary work that is already being widely shown,” says Shamis, hoping to place the event in a broader historic context. Henry is taking a similarly careful approach to “Brotherhood,” a January exhibition about the New York City Fire Department organized in conjunction with the publication of a book of the same title. “We want to exhibit some of the material from the firehouse memorials,” says Henry, who is currently consulting with the NYFD. But the museum is not planning to address 9-11 itself until September 11, 2002, the anniversary of the attacks. “Everyone, in all walks of life, is trying to get a perspective on this event, and we are trying to take our time to see what feels appropriate,” she explains.
This is in stark contrast to the approach at the New-York Historical Society, which has already opened a three-year-long series of public programs titled “The History Responds Project.” The first exhibition in the series, which continues through February 25, is “New York September 11,” featuring Magnum photographers’ extensive documentation of that day. It will be followed by “Monument: The World Trade Center,” an exhibition originally conceived by the Skyscraper Museum prior to September 11 as a commemoration of the WTC’s 30th anniversary, which has been specifically updated to include documentation of the destruction of the Twin Towers. And in March, the society will open “Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning,” which will include an abundance of memorial material and missing posters from the streets of New York.
“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.”
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.”