National Museum of American History Sets Up Hurricane Katrina Collection

Collection to Document Unprecedented Historic Events in Gulf Coast Region
November 30, 2005
While the full impact of the tragic events following Hurricane Katrina will not be fully understood for some time, historians and curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History have begun collecting artifacts and photographs to preserve the impact of the disaster and its aftermath on the nation. The museum is working to build a focused collection of objects and photographs that reflects specific aspects of the hurricane’s impact along the Gulf Coast, the rescue of survivors and the recovery of local communities. In addition to the more than 20 objects collected and more than 900 photographs taken by museum staff during the week of Sept. 26-30, the museum is still seeking tools used to escape from homes (such as sledgehammers and axes); homemade floatation devices and hand-lettered signs calling for help and rescue. A second collecting trip to the Gulf Coast region, including New Orleans, is planned for early December. “As the only national history museum, the museum recognizes its responsibility to collect, preserve and document this episode in the country’s history,” said Brent D. Glass, museum director. “Just as the National Museum of American History became the official repository of artifacts related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, collecting from Hurricane Katrina continues to fulfill the museum’s national mission and is our first concerted effort at documenting a natural catastrophe.” Working through local officials, associate curator David Shayt and museum photographer Hugh Talman spent five days in the Gulf region and brought back a variety of objects including:
  • A cot and a New Orleans Hornets basketball banner from the Superdome
  • A pair of handmade, lace valances from the 7th Ward home of the Bryan Williams family that show the high water mark in the house
  • A sign reading “Have We Been Forgotten” from Houma, La.
  • A kitchen clock, stopped at 9:25, found in a field in Waveland, Miss.
  • Shrimping gear from a Vietnamese-American shrimper in Biloxi, Miss.
  • A leather halter from a rescued horse in Gonzales, La.
Hurricane Katrina crosses many subject areas covered by the museum, and staff are pursuing leads to objects related to topics such as police and rescue operations; citizen protest; construction and engineering analysis; political and civic responses; the impact on the petroleum, seafood and coffee industries; as well as the larger historical implications. Curators are specifically seeking objects with rich stories, durability, and evidence of the hurricane, as well as a broad representation of the event’s regional and ethnic scope. Objects, photographs and documents will be preserved permanently at the museum and will help future historians and visitors comprehend the natural disaster, its effects and the long-term consequences. At this point, the museum has no plans for an exhibition of the Hurricane Katrina artifacts. The museum’s collection efforts, and the capturing of oral histories and their preservation, will be coordinated with other museums, historical organizations and universities in Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere. In a special partnership, the museum is collaborating with George Mason University and several Gulf Coast museums and organizations on an online Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, with initial funding by the Sloan Foundation. The public may share their Katrina memories at: Those with objects that may be of interest to the museum are requested to send a letter with a description, history of ownership and photographs for consideration of the items. The public is requested not to send any objects directly. Letters should be addressed to: Smithsonian Institution Katrina Collection, PO Box 37012, NMAH – MRC 629, Washington, D.C. 20013-7012. 1927 Mississippi Flood In mid-December, the museum will open a small display with objects from the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, when despite assurances from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, floodwaters forced 42 major crevasses (breaks) in levees in seven states, flooding 16.5 million acres and displacing more than 600,000 residents. The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage through exhibitions and public programs about social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit the museum's Web site at