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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: http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/site/sn/show.do?show=139903.  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.

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Filed under Experiences, Historian's Journal, Reviews

Come visit Saratoga Springs, NY!!

In memory of Patricia “Patty” Mary Elizabeth Joyce Reeves, a member of the Wilton Historical Society. (September 21, 1932 – October 12, 2010)

I was recently in Saratoga Springs for a funeral and thought it would be fitting to talk about the city in today’s post in memory of “Grandma Pat.”  Grandma Pat (technically my grandmother-in-law) was one of the first people to comment on my posts and was herself a history buff, so this is, I believe, an appropriate tribute.

Many folks know about the revolutionary era battle for Saratoga Springs–it is well documented, so I am not going to spend time on it in this post.  Instead, I am going to break this post into three parts based on 1) the Canfield Casino in Congress Park–now the sight of the Saratoga Springs History Museum, 2) a travel article reprinted from the New England Magazine, in 1905, “Saratoga Springs,” and 3)  the narrative history found in The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900.

Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino in Congress Park


Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, NY


The Saratoga Springs History Museum is in Congress Park, housed inside the old Canfield Casino.  Originally one of the main attractions to the city, along with the horses and the springs, the casino does double duty for the city, today, as the main hall is rented out for occasions such as weddings.  In its heyday it was a popular site for the high-rollers from New York city who regularly dropped six figures like it was pocket change, according to the docents.  Today, visitors can pay $5 to see the exhibits, which include a small sampling of pre-Columbian archaeological finds and a wide smattering of other artifacts from the colonial era through to the early mid-1900s.  On the second floor there are really three exhibits.  The first is a collection of women’s fashion over the last two hundred years, “Two Hundred Years of Fashion Exhibit.”  (Full disclosure: I brushed through that section pretty quickly… but if you are into fashion and textile history it’s probably pretty cool.)  The second exhibit is the only one focusing on the building’s past specifically, the “High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room,” which includes an original bar from that age (interesting side note: women weren’t allowed to gamble and so were provided a reading room).  Finally, there is an exhibit focusing on the small town’s extensive history of fires: “Historic Fires in Saratoga Springs Exhibit.”  The third floor, featuring “The Walworth Mansion–six rooms from the 1880s,” covers a rather wide array of American social history, running from the Civil War through to the Spanish American War, through the eyes of one family with ties to Kentucky, Washington DC and, obviously, Saratoga Springs.


High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room at the Saratoga Springs History Museum


As a casino, Canfield was a successful casino in the resort area of Saratoga Springs.  It ran, successfully hosting JP Morgan, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and their like, until 1907, when reformers successfully banned gambling in the city.  At this point, the docent explained, the gambling moved out to the lake, having been taken over by the criminal element that ran it in speakeasies.  The town had always attracted, as one Saratogan described it, a frivolous interest.


Parlor of the Walworth family mansion from the 1880s, Saratoga Springs History Museum


The Walworth mansion exhibit is a curious one.  As visitors walk into the doorway of the rooms an audio narrative comes on telling the family story the perspectives of different individuals in the family.  As far as that goes, I think it is a great way to introduce young people to history and the different perspectives that come down to us, though they are a little long and are rehashing the same general story–this may tax a young person’s patience.  The family deals with Civil War loyalties, domestic abuse, religious conversion in a Presbyterian corner of the world , women’s suffrage and the ill effects of the Spanish-American War.  The exhibit is supposedly based on seven rooms from the old mansion that was torn down almost one hundred years after these rooms were lived in–they are billed as coming from the 1880s–but, sadly the exhibit does not describe the methods of preservation and research to explain or make the case for how authentic this reconstruction actually is.  Nor, do they explain how they came to create the personal narratives recorded by actors–what sources they used, how they chose the individuals featured, etc.  Actually, this would in general be my complaint about the museum: not enough literature and explanation.

Apparently some odd things have happened up there on the third floor and the Ghost Hunters, from the SciFy channel, visited a while back.  The Casino was featured on episode 18 of season 6.  The episode includes another haunted site, so if you want to watch the portion relevant to Saratoga Springs, you’ll want to wade half way through it.  (This has apparently increased the number of visits to the museum.)  In the introduction to the feature, they explain some of the history of the building . . . as for ghosts?  I am not qualified to comment on anything in that area, but I did not notice anything on my visit!  (The episode is available in 5 parts on YouTube.)

“Saratoga Springs” by Louis McHenry Howe, New England Magazine, 1905

It was to Saratoga in those long-forgotten, prehistoric springtimes, when the Hudson tore apart its ice fetters and thrust them down into the sea, that the bravest and the feeblest alike of the haughty Iroquois tribe, abandoning their winter tepees, made their way over trails so firmly trodden down that the visitor to-day may trace them, sometimes for miles through the forests surrounding Saratoga.

It is by means of this introduction that Howe launches into the history surrounding the popular vacation and resort area.  Notice too, that it is published while the casino is still open for business.  The publication, The New England Magazine, was published in Boston as a continuation from the Bay State Magazine and appears to have run from 1886 to 1917 (although, I have not verified that).  My copy is a reprint of an original found in the collection of Minnie Clark Bolster and sold at the Saratoga Springs History Museum.  The article is a travel feature and tells us itself why the reader should be interested in Saratoga Springs:

What, it may well be asked, has been the magnet that has drawn man to this spot since earliest time?  The proud Iroquois, treading with light moccasin the forest trail, would have answered: “Game! for so many stately bucks and sleek-sided does, fierce wolves and fiercer panthers, never elsewhere did Indian see.”

“Society,” would have been the reply of the famous beauty, Betty Holcomb, travelling to the Spa by easy stage coach, from far Virginia, crowds assembling at each post station to catch a glimpse of her lovely face.

“The finest racing in the world,” would answer the gentlemen sportsman of to-day, learning luxuriously back in his private car as it tears across the miles that lie between Wall Street and the Saratoga Race Track.  All of these answers would have been right so far as they went, but the root of the matter would not be there, for the last analysis of Saratoga’s greatness will show that the foundations of her fame lie in her wonderful mineral springs.

The description of the town in this extended essay is one true to its time that describes what New England and New York society valued and of what popular knowledge consisted.  A geological explanation follows to explain the existence of the “wonderful mineral springs.”  Still, the majority of the essay is centered around the horse races, clearly the primary feature in the town’s popularity according to Howe.  There is surprisingly little about the Revolutionary War battle that took place there and shares its name with the small city.

As a primary source, this is valuable in the access it provides to the lifestyles of the wealthy.  While there is a great deal of discussion involving the local tribes, much of it inaccurate or misconstrued and virtually all of it romantic, there is no mention of the lives of anybody outside the wealthy class.  This is probably suggestive of the magazine’s readership, but that could be misleading.  Certainly, the accompanying photographs in the article focus on the estates and diversions of the wealthy–the publication does not provide credits for these photographs, so I take them to have come from the article, but it is possible that they have been provided for the modern reprint from Saratoga Springs archives.

The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900 by Field Horne

This is an interesting collection of personal narrative descriptions of the history of Saratoga Springs.  It is in some respects a charming and pleasant read, in others a potentially useful collection for the high school and undergraduate researcher.  For a more serious researcher it supplies a useful trail to open inquiries into Saratoga, colonial, revolutionary, Civil War, New York and New England life.  The editor, Field Horne, admits to selectively excerpting and compiling this collection with a bias towards personal narrative accounts (as opposed to travel guide descriptions, for example) and sources that highlight American life in this part of the country.  Based on this, I would suggest that correspondence with the author could very well provide a rather extensive, larger collection that did not make the cut, but may prove useful for various historical inquiries.  It provides a bibliography, index and glossary that are well done and very helpful.  The way the book is laid out it is rather like a film of Saratoga’s history, with each scene a brief snapshot from one individual’s perspective.

What a historian or instructor will not find in this collection are sources in dialogue with each other, or even really multiple perspectives on similar subjects (with the exception of the springs themselves).  Each source is in isolation.  So, to return to my movie metaphor above, imagine a film where each scene is in isolation and the individual’s perspective is only accounted for in his/her particular scene–even if the individual may be relevant in the next scene, the audience is now cut off from that perspective.  The secondary source material providing some biographical information for each of the authors is also without citations.

While obviously each individual whose works contributed to this collection was literate, there is still a fairly wide swatch of American society represented even if not the widest economic representation.  The author was particular in his transcription of these sources , so their written accounts are not polished by the author and their voices are their own.  Many links to American life in general are drawn through his selections, in particular the local connections to greater American questions and politics, whether this is the written material from international observers moving through the area after the French and Indian War, young abolitionists or business men writing in their journals about presidential debates.  This is largely the story of American leisure, primarily that of the wealthy who would make their sojourns either with intent to Saratoga Springs or as side trips from the larger cities in the region.

* * *

This is the sort of place I really enjoy visiting.  It is a place that has made the conscious decision to preserve its past and incorporate that past into its modern city-life.  Also, it is pedestrian friendly which allows for leisurely exploration of its local businesses and history.  In the fall, it was shockingly beautiful with all of its trees cycling through their autumn attire and we were lucky to be strolling through the city during gorgeous weather.  For history buffs and folks interested in historic preservation it is a great place to visit.  I look forward to returning under happier circumstances.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel