15th Anniversary of September 11
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How did the National Museum of American History acquire objects related to Sept. 11? How did you decide what objects to include in the Sept. 11 collection?
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History asked a small group of collecting curators—those with special experience in identifying and acquiring objects with important stories to tell and able to distill a large story into manageable segments—to determine which aspects of the events to acquire. These curators focused on three areas when documenting the story of Sept. 11: the attacks themselves, the experience of first responders and the recovery efforts. As curator David Shayt (1952–2008) noted:
“What we are doing is building a collection for all time. It’s not something that we take lightly, so even a Barbie doll here is looked at with great scrutiny if it is offered to us. What messages, what stories does it tell? Does it have lasting value for the museum? Does it have research potential? Is it made well, so that it will endure over the decades and decades?
These same questions were asked of everything I did collecting at the World Trade Center. Looking through piles of rubble, talking to policemen, asking co-workers and workers up there, ‘What have you seen lately?’ Frankly we were offered many things that we declined....The criteria we had in mind was stories within stories, lasting physical value and authenticity.”
To hear from more curator as they discuss the process of collecting in the aftermath of Sept. 11, visit the museum’s website September 11: Bearing Witness to History.
How many objects related to Sept. 11 do you have? Do you have artifacts from all three sites?
The Sept. 11 collection is growing, and currently includes more than 1,000 photographs, 300 objects, 15,000 comment cards (from visitors to the museum’s exhibition “September 11: Bearing Witness to History,” which opened on the first anniversary) and documents in the museum’s Archives Center. The museum was designated by Congress as the official repository of Sept. 11 materials in 2001, and preserves artifacts from all three sites. Objects include clothing from first responders and survivors, airplane fragments, photographs of the search for the missing and of temporary memorials, and remembrances. In 2011, 21 objects were formally transferred to the National Museum of American History from the Transportation Security Administration to mark the 10-year anniversary of the attacks.
Do you have any Sept. 11 artifacts on display?
Yes, the exhibition “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” includes a small section on Sept. 11. The camera that Jules Naudet used to film the only known footage of the first airplane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center, and the activity of the firefighters’ command center inside the lobby of the north tower is currently on display in “American Stories.” From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 11 the museum will provide visitors with a close-up view of objects from the three sites—New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa.—as well as recent acquisitions related to how American lives have changed since the 2001 attacks. To create an intimate experience for visitors, the objects will be displayed on tables rather than behind glass. Artifacts on view include airplane fragments, firetruck lights from the World Trade Center site, uniforms from the Pentagon and objects recovered from offices. A number of objects are on loan to other museums, including the 9/11 Memorial.
I have an artifact I’d like to contribute to the collection. Does the museum accept donations?
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the museum began collecting objects to document and preserve the material record of this important event in American history. The immediate collecting priorities focused on the attacks, the response and rescue efforts, and the commemorations that followed.
The museum would be pleased to consider donations of additional material. While we have been offered many objects related to the attacks and to the numerous responses from around the world, we cannot accept everything. If we do not accept an artifact, we might be able to direct the offer to another institution: we are working with a consortium of museums to document and preserve a selection of objects and responses.
If you have an artifact that you would like to donate, please contact the Museum’s Office of Curatorial Affairs at September11donations@si.edu to obtain the proper procedure for donating items to the collections. It is Smithsonian Institution policy not to accept unsolicited donations, so please do not send any items directly.
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