Collecting September 11: One curator’s story

Editor’s note; This post is one of a series exploring the 10th anniversary of September 11. Learn about the museum’s commemoration.

Many Americans remember Tuesday, September 11, 2001 as horrific. Nearly 3,000 people died, others were injured, and many had to run for their lives. Most Americans, however, experienced September 11 from a safe distance. Even for those (like me) who were not directly touched by death or injury, the trauma was significant.

I was in a staff meeting when American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. Stunned, I went to my office and watched the TV, dumbfounded, as the World Trade Center Towers collapsed. Watching the events in New York unfold on television while at the same time seeing smoke rising from the Pentagon through a window made it all feel like a surreal nightmare. Undeniably it was happening.

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Bystanders stand in shock outside the World Trade Center.

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A man watches the crash at the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, I came back to work. I am a museum curator, so I immediately began thinking about what should be preserved—that’s what we do. I made a list and shared it with others, who added their suggestions. But one of my colleagues looked at the list and asked: If you lived in Sarajevo and the date was June 24, 1914, what would you collect? Chagrined, I realized that on the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, it would have been hard to predict the extent of WWI and collect its iconic objects. Similarly on September 12, 2001, it was not clear what would come next.

Two days later a large group of curators got together to discuss what to do; opinions differed widely. Some wanted to quickly assemble teams to descend on the three sites and gather ephemeral evidence of the terrorist attacks. Some were horrified by the death and destruction (we usually document high points in history) and thought we should wait ten or twenty years until it was clear what was significant. Others thought we should collect September 11 as we collect any topic—by curatorial specialty.

A month later, Jim Gardner (then Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs) looked around and saw that very little had been collected. He asked a group of three curators—Bill Yeingst, David Shayt, and me—to create a foundation collection around September 11. We drew up a plan: collect material which led up to the attack, artifacts of the attack itself, and objects documenting the rescue and clean-up. We decided not to collect the memorialization aspects. Bill focused on the Pentagon, David on New York, and I concentrated on the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In the end we never collected materials which might give insight into the events leading up to the September 11 attacks. We did a good job of documenting the attack itself and the clean-up.

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 Scorched eagle finial from an office flagpole, recovered from the wreckage at the Pentagon.

There is no magic formula for collecting museum objects, but it takes a certain kind of person to do the job. Collecting curators like to listen to stories, are willing to ask strangers for precious objects, and are doggedly persistent. One of our most effective tools for collecting was reading the newspaper. David read a story in The New York Times about a window washer named Jan Demczur. Trapped between floors on an elevator in the North Tower, Jan used his squeegee to pry open the door and cut through numerous layers of sheet rock and flee to safety. After numerous phone calls, David found Jan and convinced him to donate his uniform and dust covered squeegee.

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Jan Demczur, a window washer at the World Trade Center, used this brass Ettore Corp. squeegee handle to escape from an elevator on September 11.

We called upon old contacts to find opportunities to collect. Curator Jennifer Jones worked with the 311th Quartermaster Company Mortuary Affairs. In one of the most disturbing moments of the collecting initiative, Jennifer, Bill, and I spent an afternoon in a dark, claustrophobic 19th century stable at Fort Myer sorting through the contents of red bio-hazard bags looking for icons of the attack. This was not like any collecting trip I had ever experienced.

One of the longest-lasting efforts was the quest for artifacts from Flight 93. After several years of discussions with company representatives and a myriad of attorneys, we finally gained access to the wreckage of the plane. When we arrived at the small airport where the material was stored, we found the airplane wreckage was in 20’ long ocean-going shipping containers. When the doors were opened we saw the debris was in amazingly small pieces. David worked the front of the piles while I climbed into the container, wriggling over the top of the pile, trying not to get cut by the sharp fragments of fuselage. In the near dark I looked for artifacts with a flashlight and fought back fears about what I might accidentally encounter. The wreckage smelled of jet fuel, moldy cloth, and other strange odors. This was not an assignment for anyone afraid of the dark. At the end of day, reeking of sweat and airplane wreckage, we threw away our work clothes before flying home.

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Wreckage from Flight 93

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Curator Peter Liebhold looking for artifacts to collect

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Curator David Shayt with an object that is now part of the museum’s collections

Collecting often requires archival research. Bill and I spent many days going through thousands of photos maintained by the FBI. From crime scene images to haunting photos shot by participants who did not survive, the pictures put a human face on the September 11 attacks. Viewing the images made the experience far more personal. What I most desperately try to forget are things I saw in the photographs.

We were very driven yet remained respectful. We never directly contacted the relatives of someone killed—we always went through intermediaries so families could easily refuse our requests. Many of our conversations with participants and donors were hours long and often included a lot of crying—us included. It is difficult dealing with death and frankly none of us were prepared for the task. At times each one of us was ready to throw in the towel but the support and pressure of the others kept us going.

Like soldiers and their war stories, curators don’t often talk about the experience of collecting. I am proud of our efforts collecting artifacts related to September 11. It is an important piece of history and should be preserved.

Peter Liebhold is Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.


Posted at 2:49 pm EDT in From the Collections,September 11