September 11: Experience the power of objects first-hand

For most of us, September 11 is only a media event, lived vicariously through commentaries of journalists and designated “experts” who analyze yet again the familiar video clips that have become the collective public memory of that day. It is history through a flat screen. It should be more.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, the National Museum of American History will provide a unique look at historical objects saved from September 11, 2001. Our presentation will be an unusual blend of a public program and a simple display of artifacts—a display, not a full exhibition. I think you will find it an unforgettable experience.

For nine days only, from September 3 through September 11, 2011, the museum will show the objects on open tables, without cases, and with short labels. Seeing them this way will be intimate and powerful. Staff will be available to discuss the display or answer questions. But I expect that for most visitors, this will not be a time to gather new information, but a time to quietly remember and reflect; a time simply to be in the presence of the objects and ponder their significance.

fire truck door
Brooklyn Squad 1 fire truck door

The objects were there; they were part of it all. Their power lives in their authenticity and their mute, unchanging simplicity. At this tenth anniversary, we are drawn to see and respond to them viscerally: twisted steel, singed clothing, melted plastic, a phone that provided a vital connection in an emergency, a battered fire-engine door.

burned world trade center sign
Stairwell sign from the World Trade Center

flight crew log
Flight crew log from United Airlines Flight 93

Our display will be a museum experience reduced to its essence: we will show artifacts that the Smithsonian has chosen to preserve in perpetuity to document this turning point in our history. As we view and contemplate them, they give us continued insight about what happened and why, and how events of that day are affecting our present and future. It is a relationship that matures over time. While these artifacts stay the same, we move on. Their meaning continually changes.

Some day in the future, the museum’s role will be to provide extensive commentary on these objects, to restore our memory of the events, and put them into broad historical context. How many planes were there again? What sites did they hit? What made the towers collapse?

But not yet. Not this year. Our goal on this tenth anniversary is to stimulate personal memories. These objects ask each viewer to look back at the shock and horror of that day, and answer the simple question: How has this historic event changed your life?

David K. Allison is Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History.