Two small boys at the National Museum of American History lean over a railing to touch a piece of steel from the World Trade Center wreckage. One turns to the other and asks, “Is it real?”
Many people found themselves asking the same question after the September 11 attacks, when the world suddenly seemed much less safe. More than a year later, the question remains, though in a very different form. As the attacks fade into history, it’s tempting to believe that they never happened at all.
Two days after the attacks, the staff of National Museum of American History sat down and decided it fell to them to preserve this budding history so America would always remember just how real it was.
It was a tough decision, however.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How soon should we go out and collect?’ Would it seem morbid?'” said Marilyn Zoidis, lead curator for the exhibit. In the end, Zoidis said that they decided it was “(their) job to save the history of this country … we knew (these items) would be important, five, 10, 50, even 100 years from now.”
Time was a factor. Memories were fading and important pieces of history were being cleared away with the rubble. Relying largely on donations from witnesses, survivors and the families of victims, they began to piece together a collection of items designed to tell the story of the attacks.
The exhibit centers heavily on the stories of victims and survivors alike, filled with photographs and eyewitness accounts. Items recovered from the crash sites are on display, including an elevator panel from the World Trade Center and a tattered American Flag found inside the ground zero wreckage. The display includes tributes to firefighters, rescue workers, passengers of Flight 93 and even dogs that searched for survivors in the wreckage.
“We were struck by how willing people were to give these objects to the collection … we were seen less as intruders and more as preserving (the items),” Zoidis said.
Fifteen core museum workers spent seven months working on the roughly $500,000 exhibit entitled September 11: Bearing Witness to History. It opened to the public on Sept. 11, 2002. Since then more than 400,000 people have visited the exhibit, which will run through April 12. The exhibit was originally scheduled to close on the Jan. 12, but was extended for three months.
“We feel that we’re providing a service and since many people can’t make it to D.C. until the spring, we decided to keep it open,” Zoidis said.
While the rest of the museum is full of the bustle of tourists admiring the museum’s collections, Sept 11: Bearing Witness to History is completely silent. Only children speak, and even then, quietly. Chairs and tables with boxes of tissues on them line the walls in case visitors need to rest. Even now, 16 months later, the tissues still get a lot of use.
“They cry most every day. Working here at this exhibit is hard,” said a museum security guard who wished to remain unnamed.
The exhibit consists of roughly 50 objects, although the collection contains upward of 170 items. When asked about the criteria for admitting object to the collection, Zoidis said, “we wanted to tell stories about people and how they were witnesses to history; we wanted objects that told stories about all three crash sites, to cover all aspects of the day.”
The exhibit has the only known video footage of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center and the camera that filmed it, belonging to filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet. The brothers were filming a documentary of a rookie firefighter in New York’s Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse when the towers were attacked.
There are currently no limits on the number of items that the museum will accept for the collection and they are still receiving calls about donations. They have declined some offers.
“We felt that some objects should remain in the communities they came from. There’s no reason that all the history has to come here … people should be able to remember this where they live as well,” Zoidis said.
She said they declined objects that were similar to items already in the collection and items that would better serve the community from which they came, such as tributes to local people who died in the attacks and school memorials.
Toward the back, there is a small dark room where a theater has been set up to continually screen a 10-minute film throughout the day. The film includes clips from ABC News broadcasts on that day and interviews with reporters who were on the scene. Three women sit in the front row holding hands. The film ends and they stay and watch it again. The credits roll for the second time and still they do not move. It is only when the towers begin collapsing for the third time that they get up to leave.
The exhibit allows visitors to contribute their own September 11 stories to the collection. Note pads and pencils are available for those who were at one of the crash sites or lost someone to record their memories. Other guests are invited to share where they were when they heard about the attacks. Special phones are also available for recording stories. Visitors’ stories are on display on the exhibit walls. The museum records and stores all stories in the September 11 Digital Archive. The digital archive is a permanent online database created to record the stories of September 11 for posterity. All of the stories recorded by the museum are currently available at www.911digitalarchive.org/smithsonian.