Tag Archives: Smithsonian

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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What I am reading . . .

Unfortunately, I will be attending a funeral this weekend and unable to post a regular blog entry, so here is something to tide you over:

I am constantly picking up new things to read–hate not having something really interesting or entertaining at my fingertips so, while the list is large, I also hope it is interesting!


In history:

  • The American Historical Review, Vol. 115, No. 3, June 2010 (So, I am a little behind . . . ): “A contiuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion”: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609 and “If You Eat Their Food . . . “: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America” (will feature these in a future blog–Food Week, coming soon!)
  • The First Fossil Hunters, Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor–fascinating stuff, was originally turned onto it by a History Channel special with the author, focused on this project.

For instruction:

  • Reading History, A practical guide to improving history by Janet Allen with Christine Landaker–just got this back after I had loaned it out, starts from the premise (backed up by studies) that one improves reading and literacy not through reading classes but through material such as social studies which forces readers to grapple with material.

For blogging and writing in general:

  • Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, by Don George– got to keep the pencil sharp!
  • Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob — definitely plan on using this when I do my Food Week this winter here on the blog!!
  • Sin and Syntax, How to craft wickedly effective prose, by Constance Hale — useful entertaining, my writing should no doubt improve!


  • Preservation Magazine — published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Smithsonian Magazine

For fun:

  • Snoop, What your stuff says about you, by Sam Gosling, PhD — he is a psychologist and I think there is actually a lot here that historians good borrow!
  • Lord Peter, by Dorothy Sayers — compilation of all of Sayers short stories featuring the debonair detective Lord Peter Wimsey!
  • Getting to that time of the year when I like to reread Harry Potter, too!

Finally, I always find great articles to share online, so follow my Twitter, ETFranz, for more reading material (but, not many personal status updates!).

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

History vs. Journalism, a problem with sources

Where have all the reliable sources gone?

I love reading a well-written piece in magazines such as the Smithsonian.  These cultural catch-alls are entertaining and usually skillfully crafted prose, often adorned with fantastic photography or artwork.  Still they are not written from an academic perspective, nor typically for an academic audience.  The sources are frequently limiting in their perspective and infrequently fully disclosed.  As a historian I read many pieces with a certain sense of frustration, usually related to the author’s method.  (As a high school student, I recall being particularly fired up after reading a National Geographic article on Ibn Battuta, the African Muslim traveler who covered way more turf and sand than Marco Polo, but NO sources were provided.)  I am not entirely sure how this is played out for other academic fields, but in the field of history there are demands for disclosure of one’s sources that are not required of journalists–in fact, journalistic codes often require just the opposite: protection of one’s sources.

An "Indelible Image" in Smithsonian Magazine, a regular edition that typically interviews the individuals in the photo and the photographer about the picture.

A few years ago, I sat in the Dirkson cafeteria on capitol hill with a fellow colleague of the Close Up Foundation.  He was also working part time at one of the big box book stores and taking advantage of a book loan program they had for their employees.  Sadly, I cannot recall the title or author of the particular book he was reading, but I do recall that it was about the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.  When I asked him about it, he said it was rather odd: it was written by a journalist and had sections of dialogue in it.  Actually, it was like a running transcript of a discussion supposedly held in the Oval Office by Bush with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.  According to my friend, there was no citation or explanation about where the script came from.  WHAT??!?  Don’t you have to at least tell me that you got it from a source you can’t tell me about?

Admittedly, journalism has changed–look at what I’m doing; journalists do it, too–but, the whole approach was always different from history.  If journalism requires investigations into current politicians, corporate heads and international politics, than sources need to be protected so that they may speak freely.  That is the theory, anyway.  I respect that, although, when the news contradicts itself as much as it does, today, it is really hard to know what is actually happening.  Historians do not need to worry so much about their sources feeling reprisal since all parties are often dead.  In fact, it is quite the opposite approach.  Everyone should have access to the source!  As I read a historian’s work I am not only at liberty to check his interpretation against the sources he used, but am encouraged to follow his sources to develop my own theories and ideas and build on our current understanding.  This is an essential feature of  the field.  It is frequently not possible with journalistic writing.  When I would desire to check a random assertion, I am left without a footnote and my only recourse is to see what others have published.  It is often difficult to get to the primary sources, because no one wants to divulge them.  All I can do is trust the journalist’s integrity and judgement!

Journalists forgetting their press badges are not "backstage passes."

It is thus difficult to do one’s due diligence.  We have an undesirable situation compounded with the withering of the newsprint industry.  Instead of reading a lengthy story with explanations and a trail building to a conclusion, most people have chosen short blurbs on TV media or snappy online sources.  I tend to ignore tweeted news without an article attached to it.

Twitter killed the newspaper star?

That explains my frustration with current news media, but it also explains one’s irritation when reading journalist-written histories.  The training creates significantly different products from a journalist than it would from a historian, but it often gets read more, promoted more and discussed more outside of academic circles.  To add insult to injury, journalists with insufficient knowledge or training often review academic history works in popular publications.  What a mess!  I don’t really have it in for journalists, but I do get frustrated with them–they aren’t historians, but they sometimes play historians in the media!


Filed under Historian's Journal