The Smithsonian remembers 9/11 | American History

September 11: Remembrance and Reflection,

September 3-11, 2011, Hall of Instruments

Washington DC Firefighters visiting the exhibit; some answered the call in Arlington, VA at the Pentagon

The silent group of students was clearly puzzled looking at the crumpled, twisted cylinder of metal.  There were about five of them standing in front of the table; behind and above it a sign hung, reading, “PENNSYLVANIA.”   They gestured and signed, finally getting the attention of the attendant who called over both a docent and a sign language interpreter.  Why a hot water bottle?  The docent explained that this was a standard piece of equipment on airplanes to heat water for the drink service, but there was an additional story in this case as a stewardess was believed to be prepared to use the boiling fluid in the attempt to retake the aircraft.  He asked them in this situation, what would you do?  The highjackers may only be armed with box-cutters, but how do you respond?  A tall teenage girl signed in response that she would break a makeup mirror and use the shards.

Recovered from Flight 93's crash site: a window shade, an orange call button, a dial from the cockpit and the hot water heater

* * *

For one week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History remembers September 11, 2001.  It is story-telling and reflection through fifty objects from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 crash outside of Pittsburgh.  This is not your ordinary museum exhibit; there are no glass boxes or picture-coated walls.  Instead there are four tables set up, surrounded by exhibit booth cubicles draped in soft gray.  Behind each table are two docents, at the ready, to explain the artifacts and share the stories.  Because the space is small and the artifacts are unprotected–please, they ask, do not touch, but take as many pictures as you want–entry is counted to keep the crowd down and the exhibit comfortable.  The line runs about thirty-five or forty yards down the hall and while you wait museum staff hand out the official booklet to read over.

The booklet is extremely well-done.  It highlights a handful of the exhibit’s pieces, telling their stories, accompanied with glossy photographs on a white background.  It is a mere six pages, but does its part wonderfully and is a thoughtful souvenir.  Opening with a brief introduction about the exhibit, it covers the three sites by discussing one or two of the artifacts and concludes with the TSA and a timeline of that dark day’s main events.  This serves both a practical and emotional purpose in that it helps one pass the time in line and prepares one for the rest of the items in the exhibit.

Once you enter the exhibit, there is no plan you must follow as the attendants will assure you, encouraging you to go to any spaces that happen to be open.  Most people were, however, immediately drawn to the life-size photograph of the New York City Armory’s brick wall, covered with missing posters.  Next to it was the table featuring artifacts from the World Trade Center site.  The crunched red fire truck door (FDNY Division 11, Squad 1 of Brooklyn), the emblem for the exhibit, stood at attention behind the table.  Laid out were artifacts both from the Towers, the first responders and the airplanes.  The EMT badge worn by Michael Collarone was laid out next to the video camera Jules Naudet used to film, almost by coincidence, the only known footage of the first airplane hitting the North Tower.  Prominent in the middle of the table is the dusty, worn-out briefcase of Lisa Lefler who evacuated the South Tower after the first plane hit and who lost 175 of her colleagues after the second plane hit.  (The briefcase was blown out of the tower and recovered at street level.  When the man who found it tried to return it to her family, using the resume inside, he did not expect her to answer the phone when he called.)  It lies next to the tool belt worn by James Connor as he worked at Ground Zero.  Further down the table, beyond Mayor Rudi Giuliani’s cell phone, is a recognizable scrap of window frame from one of the planes.

James Connor's tool belt from the Ground Zero clean-up, used September 2001 - January 2002

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's cell phone, used during the crisis

Next to the “NEW YORK” table is the “PENTAGON” table.  Laid out on the table are remnants from offices, building pieces and pieces donated by survivors.  An M&M dispenser sits almost luridly in front of a crumpled support piece and next to the photograph and uniform worn by K-9 Pentagon police officer Isaac Ho’opi’i and his bomb-smelling dog’s collar, named Vito.  Beyond is a collection of office equipment: an antique yellowed office phone, an analog wall clock, stopped at 9:32.  A hunk of melted commemorative metals and an Altoid tin of melted coins, sit ashy at the end.  Behind the table, one of the enormous Pentagon wall maps stands dusty, but solid next to the docent.

M&M dispenser and a structural piece of the Pentagon

Map of the Pentagon's 1st floor

The third table, placed opposite these two, is the one remembering Flight 93, which came down in Shanksville, PA.  The relics from this flight are limited to those from the plane, featuring shards of twisted fuselage, items from the passenger area, such as a charred seat belt, and United Airlines manuals and logs belonging to flight attendant, Lorraine Bay.  This is the table I found the students at, asking their question about the hot water heater.  Its offerings are sparse, reminding us that there are no stories of survival among the lives lost, except for those unknown lives spared the catastrophe of that plane crashing into a civilian or government target.

Seat belts recovered from the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA

United Airline manuals and personal logbook of flight attendant Lorraine Bay

The final table is manned by smiling TSA agents with a small collection of materials donated by the agency to the museum–including a relic of the early 2000s, in a pre-9/11 world, a yellowing out-of-date, walk-through metal detector in use on September 11.  They are there to ask questions about what is allowed, what they find, but nothing regarding procedure.  Two agents I spoke with confirmed that they joined from other areas in law enforcement because of 9/11.

TSA was formed in response to 9/11

TSA Agents stand behind a table that includes contraband, such as brass knuckles, taken from passengers

As you exit this room there is a screen showing excerpts from two films produced by Smithsonian Channel.  For a limited time these are available on the website:  Beyond this,  tables were set up with cards asking guests to share the impact of 9/11 on their lives–responses varied, but many were long and thoughtful, some were illustrations.

Two visitors read the comments left by guests

Asked to share how 9/11 changed our lives, this guest is still so overcome with the events of the day, she shared them instead

The exhibit’s success is its simplicity.  Rather than large panels or placards, the museum provided people who could tell the stories behind a small, select number of pieces which in many ways spoke for themselves.


1 Comment

Filed under Experiences, Historian's Journal, Reviews

One response to “The Smithsonian remembers 9/11 | American History

  1. Jacki

    Excellent blog. Made me feel like I was able to see the actual exhibit. Thank you for sharing your findings and for helping us remember.

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