|Subj:||History is laying claim to tons of WTC artifacts|
|Date:||11/26/01 7:55:30 AM Pacific Standard Time|
|Newhouse News Service|
NEW YORK -- A simple logic propels Jan Ramirez, the director of the New York Historical Society, through the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center, a can of orange spray paint in hand.
Crushed file cabinets, shards of plate glass, mangled subway signs -- all are tagged on the authority of one urgent word: "SAVE."
History is hastily laying claim to tons of artifacts, documents and wreckage to tell the story of Sept. 11. As historians and museum curators know too well, historical evidence is perishable -- lost as wreckage is dismantled, as outdoor shrines to the missing give way to time and the elements.
Initially, the enormity of the attacks left historians unsure how to respond or even whether to respond. But within 24 hours, ordinary New Yorkers led the way. A concierge donated a face mask, a rescue worker gave a respirator, one man a vial of the gray dust that had blanketed lower Manhattan.
To Ramirez, their need to document what was happening, even in the midst of the terror and chaos, was almost instinctive. People saw the value in the mundane and carefully included the story with the objects they brought -- what museums call provenance. This will provide future historians with an intimate and compelling account.
In her forays into the Trade Center wreckage, Ramirez looks with a trained eye for what she calls the poetic pieces of life interrupted -- the leather-bound datebook in perfect condition, the shiny paper clip in a sea of mud.
Few museum ethics guide a collection of this kind. There is a tangle of questions about legal control of the artifacts, about where and how to preserve them. But the more pressing and daunting issues revolve around the deeply sacred nature of what remains from the terrorist attacks.
What is appropriate to collect, and when? Toward what purpose? Ground zero and the Pentagon are more than crime scenes or historic sites. As Pentagon historians observed in an Army Museum newsletter: "Viewing the crash site [for the families] was essentially the funeral for their loved ones and the Pentagon itself was the grave."
Only in Oklahoma City, where 168 people died in 1995 in the nation's deadliest act of domestic terrorism, is there a remotely comparable experience. But the sheer scale of the more recent tragedy and the thousands dead leave historians and curators feeling adrift "in uncharted waters," said Sarah Henry, a vice president at the Museum of the City of New York.
And so, in an unprecedented partnership, up to 50 institutions and organizations -- among them the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the Museum of the City of New York -- have joined to chronicle Sept. 11 and its aftermath, making available their curators, scholars, museum directors and archivists.
They are learning by doing, working with officials from the Port Authority to the FBI, and forging a wholly new and unexpected set of museum guidelines. The feeling of obligation -- not only to history, but also to Americans living through this moment -- is overwhelming.
"How in the world do we get our arms around this?" asks Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society.
At the Pentagon, curatorial teams searched the wreckage, carrying out desk calendars set on Sept. 11, burned computers, melted telephones. But the cards, photographs and other personal items left at a nearby shrine created by families and other mourners, they decided, "cannot be reduced to the status of museum specimens." Instead, they listed and boxed them. Decisions on how they will be preserved and used were left for the future.