Sep 5, 2011

Objects and Memory

On September 11, 2001 I was 16 years old.  Two days earlier was my birthday and I got a car.  An aptly named “patriot red” PT Cruiser.  It was in our driveway with a big white bow on it.

On Tuesday, at the time of the attacks, I was in school.  I was a junior in Mrs. Weinert’s world literature class.  I am almost certain that I was writing a note to my friend Rachel, who sat behind me.  As is common in a Catholic school, a girl in the back of the class asked if she could offer a prayer of intention before we started class.  Mrs. Weinert agreed and this girl took the floor and asked us to pray for the plane crash in New York.  And that was how 35 teenage girls found out that our country had changed.

I was nowhere near New York, D.C., or Pennsylvania.  No one I knew was flying anywhere that day.  My relatives in New York live well outside the city.  And I don’t have any friends or acquaintances who work or have ever worked at the Pentagon (Could I even tell you if I did?).

In the grand scheme of things, I was pretty far removed from the events of September 11.  But like most Americans, I grieved— largely affected by the images on TV.  After several days, I would ask to leave the room (or just lie and say I had to use the bathroom) when we watched Channel One during second period.  I hated having to watch the news in school.  Reading Richard III was bad enough.

I can’t say that I fully processed such a monumental tragedy until the following summer, upon the release of Bruce Springsteen’s album, The Rising.

To this day, when I hear songs from this album—when they catch me off guard when my iPod is on shuffle—they always bring me back to being 16 years old, driving to Powderpuff football practice, and trying to make sense of what was happening in the world.  Without fail, when I listen to any song from this album, I can smell mud (football practice, after all), vividly remember the look and feel of that PT cruiser, and I can remember staring blankly, waiting for Bruce to say something profound.

So that’s my object and those are my memories.


Those in the museum profession should not be surprised that one object can bring a flood of vivid memories and sharp emotions to a viewer (or, in my case, listener).  A major reason people visit museums is to have these kinds of experiences, provoked by objects that carry some kind of cultural significance.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the museum experience—responding to objects in such an intense way—and September 11.  The news media (and almost every other media) will not let us forget that we are nearly upon the 10 year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.  There has been much talk of how to remember and what can be done to ensure that we “never forget” these events.

To me, it seems only natural that a museum should be involved.  After all, museums exist so that we may remember and learn from past events.  I wasn’t acutely aware of any 9/11 museums or even exhibitions that were happening but it seemed like a good idea.

Then, the other night, I was channel surfing in bed when I came across a PBS documentary called, "Objects and Memory"

It turned out to be a spectacularly engaging look at the physical objects surrounding the 9/11 disasters and others, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.  I had to get out of bed to get a notebook and pen to take notes. 

A few themes jumped out at me right away:

1.)    Objects left at memorials are left by the living for the dead.  The documentary explored this sentiment and I found it interesting to examine the question of what happens to these objects.  My first question is, when people leave objects at a memorial site, what do they think will happen to them?  What are their expectations?  Site staff will often collect these objects after a period, but who determines the appropriate amount of time for a small plastic flag to be left at the Vietnam Memorial? 

2.)    The variety of ways these objects can be interpreted is overwhelming and downright daunting.  Even for someone who loves education—I’m really that this wasn’t my job.  The objects themselves are exceptionally diverse.  At The World Trade Center, objects from the same site can both humanize and dehumanize the same event.  The photos left by family members, firefighters’ helmets, vigil candles, etc. all have a very emotional and very obviously human connection.  Yet, the massive steel beams, many twisted like paperclips, and clumps of steel melted into what are being called “meteorites” from the sheer heat of the explosion have nothing human about them and represent the awesome size and power of the devastation.

3.)    There is a lack of nostalgia connected to objects from the 9/11 sites.  It was mentioned several times in the documentary that the attitude is less of nostalgia and more of “this is what is left”.

4.)    These objects are responsible for bringing closure. After the towers collapsed, debris was carted away to the “Fresh Kills” landfill (yes, that’s what it’s really called) on Staten Island where it was combed through by a slew of people looking for objects to return to families of the deceased.  It seems that the collection of almost every object at this site was for that very purpose.

I very highly recommend this film—especially to those with interest in exhibitions or museum education.

Not more than a few days after I watched this great documentary that seemed to sufficiently address my thoughts about the objects of 9/11 did my new issue of Museum Magazine come in the mail*.  In it, is a great article called, “Memories in Steel” which talks about the collection and storage of so many steel beams from the World Trade Center.  Generally, the article is about the collection and subsequent dissemination of these beams to various museums and memorials around the country.

Beams marked "SAVE", stored in hangar 17 at JFK airport.

But the most interesting part of this article was this bit, 
“ Museums and history organizations—includioong the New York State Historical Society, Smithsonian Institution, and state museums of New York and New Jersey—all sent representatives…to Ground Zero and Fresh Kills to conduct informal surveys of artifacts that might later be collected”.
Yes, in the days after a massive terrorist attack, museum professionals were sent to that very site to survey objects that might be collected.

To me, this is an extremely powerful notion.  As a museum professional myself, I can only imagine what such a task must have been like. Certainly, it was devastating to be in such close proximity to a wreckage of that magnitude; but to then be asked to survey that wreckage and determine what parts of it are culturally significant—that blows me away.

Imagine if similar action had been taken at every significant historical event in the United States.  Imagine if someone had said, “Oh, yeah, we’d better send that guy from The Smithsonian down to Seneca Falls to pick up some stuff from that ladies convention!” or “Sounds like the Union and the Confederacy are really getting into it.  Let’s get down in the trenches and collect some objects!”

This kind of attitude gives me the tiniest spark of hope that museums will continue to be recognized by the public as institutions of cultural stewardship that can be highly emotional and participatory while still maintaining an accurate record of the events of our time.  I also hope that such institutions may continue to act as a source of comfort and closure to those who were so deeply affected by tragic events in our history.  If that is possible, it makes me proud to work within a profession that can not only preserve and display objects can also keep and preserve the memories those objects represent.


Some great resources I've found since watching "Objects and Memory":

Until recently, I hadn't heard much about the museum that is part of the 9/11 Memorial.  But it looks really well done.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum did a really nice job with their education materials so far.  And they also have an iPhone and iPad app.

The Objects and Memory Project also has an education initiative, but it's a little vague in the description.

I really wasn't aware of any 9/11 exhibitions, but apparently The Smithsonian opened one in 2002 and has (maybe?) added to it since then for a special series running from 9/3/11 to 9/11/11.  And apparently they now have Rudy Giuliani's cell phone.

*For those of you who now only receive the electronic version of Museum
As of 9/4/11, this issue is not yet online.  (But I'm happy to scan it if anyone is interested.)