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September 11: Museums, spontaneous memorial and history

James Gardner, National Museum of American History, Washington DC, 13 September 2010

LOUISE DOUGLAS: Good afternoon everybody, and welcome to those of you who are not from the National Museum of Australia. I see we have some people from the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Australian War Memorial as well. Welcome to what is essentially one of our staff seminars but, because Jim Gardner is a person of such standing and has such an interesting topic to address us about today, we threw the invitation open to other institutions. Welcome to you all.

Jim has been a great friend of the National Museum of Australia and has really helped to forge links with the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian where he’s been a senior scholar for many years. He’s also developing a relationship with the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian so he will become a kind of dual institutional senior scholar sometime soon.

He holds a BA with honours in history from Rhodes College and an MA and PhD in history from Vanderbilt University. He previously served as Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History. To say he’s a mover and shaker in the world of public history is underestimating completely his role. Prior to joining the National Museum of American History, he served as Deputy Executive Director of the American Historical Association and as Director of Education and Special Programs for the American Association for State and Local History. His professional activities have included service as President of the National Council on Public History, President of the Society for History in the Federal Government, chair of the nominating board of the Organization of American Historians, and a member of the board of editors for the journal The Public Historian. He currently serves on the American Association for State and Local History Council and is chair of the Smithsonian’s Ethics Advisory Board.

He has numerous publications including: The American Association of Museums Guide to Collections Planning published in 2004; Public History: essays from the field, a revised edition which appeared in 2004; and Ordinary People and Everyday Life: perspectives on the new social history published in 1983. He also has essays in some forthcoming publications: The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: redefining ethics for the twenty-first century and Museum and Grassroots Memorials: the politics of memorializing traumatic death. I think I’ll stop there. You have the general idea. He’s been involved in public history for a very long time and has very interesting perspectives to bring to us today, particularly around ‘Museums, memorials and history: collecting and interpreting September 11’. Please welcome Jim.

JAMES GARDNER: Thank you, Louise. Mat [Trinca] and I were talking a few moments ago about how we had worked out that I would do this talk today without, admittedly, either one of us thinking it’s two days after the ninth anniversary of September 11. I won’t claim that we were really thinking through this, but it is a timely subject. I would be happy to discuss after my paper specific challenges that we are facing for the tenth anniversary next year.

What I am going to do is talk about work that I have been involved in regarding memorialisation. I have been involved in this work for nearly a decade. Part of my work centres on September 11. It intersects with a larger discussion about memorialising traumatic death, variously described as spontaneous memorials, makeshift memorials and grassroots memorials - essentially unofficial and non-institutional memorials, although I will challenge that assumption a bit shortly.

A version of the ideas that I am going to share with you will be part of an anthology that Louise mentioned that will be published by Berghahn Press later this year. The anthology was built around a series of papers that a group of us gave at a meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists a few years ago. I am one of the few - maybe the only - historian involved, and my involvement is because of other connections with scholars working on the Madrid bombings that came later. The volume is indeed very broad in scope. It includes not only my essay and a few others on September 11 but also essays on traffic accidents, floods, the murder of a gay politician and other moments that have engaged public mourning. While others in the book are focusing on other politics and performance of grief, my interest is in the role of museums in the documentation, preservation and interpretation of such traumatic moments, and more specifically the tension between public memorialisation and the roles of museums, between memorialising a moment and collecting and interpreting it.

September 11 began for staff at the Museum of American History with a routine staff meeting, but things quickly changed as word spread through the auditorium of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, threats to the nation’s capital, a car bomb at the US Department of State, fires on the National Mall, airplanes circling over the museum and chaos on the streets. Fortunately, most of that was simply rumour, but the realities we shortly learned were horrifying enough. Uncertain of what would happen next, we kept the museum closed, set up a command centre, pulled out our disaster plan and sent staff home.

We managed to get through that day, returning to resume our work in the days that followed. But much had changed and would change over the coming months. The museum itself was a different place. We soon had temporary concrete barriers ringing the building. We had bag checks at the entrances not only for visitors but for museum staff, and quite a bit of uncertainty about what would happen next.

Our behaviour changed as well. We suddenly became more aware of sirens in the distance that we would have ignored before. We stole looks out of the windows during meetings to see if the surveillance planes were still circling over. Many of the staff brought in radios and flashlights and discussed evacuation plans with family and friends. And then came the anthrax scare, increasing the sense of a city under siege. Nine years later, the temporary barriers are just now being replaced by a permanent perimeter security system, magnetometers now supplement bag checks and the museum’s mail continues to be irradiated for anthrax nine years later. There has not been a return to normal.

But even as things changed, one thing has remained the same: the museum’s commitment to collecting and interpreting history. That did not, however, mean simply business as usual. The tragic events of September 11 reshaped our agenda, posing new challenges as we entered uncharted territory. As staff began returning to work in the days that followed the terrorist attacks, hallway discussion quickly turned to what September 11 would mean for the museum and for the larger community in which we work. What role should museums play in a time of crisis? What public expectations would we encounter? What new responsibilities would we have? What role should we play in constructing collective memory? And perhaps most importantly, how would we address our responsibilities as museums within that tragic context, at the difficult intersection of grief and history?

Collecting is at the foundation of all that museums do, so it’s only natural that discussion focused on collecting almost immediately. On September 13, nine years ago today, the museum’s collections committee changed the topic of an already scheduled conversation on collecting in order to address the issues and concerns that were being raised within the museum about collecting, about responding to September 11. The most basic question was simply: should we collect?

Despite being known as ‘the nation’s attic’, the Smithsonian cannot collect everything and does not collect everything. As is the case with most if not all history museums, the Museum of American History does not collect systematically and has built not an encyclopaedic or comprehensive collection, but rather one that is selective and representative. As you know, collecting for history museums is more of an art than a science. Our collections are shaped by curators’ perspectives and expertise rather than any hard, fast plans or rules. It is never a given that the Museum of American History will collect in a specific area or in any topic. Whether to collect is a judgment call made by knowledgeable and experienced curators.

But September 11 did not feel like a routine collecting opportunity that we could just elect to pursue or not pursue; it clearly constituted an important moment in the life of the nation. While some staff argued that the museum should move cautiously to avoid appearing opportunistic or ghoulish in a time of national mourning, most recognised that the public would expect us to collect.

More importantly, if we didn’t collect, we understood that we would have to be prepared to explain why. Indeed, the public demonstrated that they cared deeply about this through emails, calls and letters to curators suggesting and even offering items for the museum to collect. Then in December 2001, just a few months later, the United States Congress weighed in as well officially charging the Museum of American History to collect and preserve artefacts relating to the September 11 attacks. So ultimately the Museum of American History is the steward of the nation’s memory. We are obligated to collect.

But then there is the issue of, even if we acknowledged that we are going to collect, what about September 11 should the museum collect? We had our standard answer to that question. Our collecting centres on objects that tell stories that are about moments and lives, and our priorities regarding September 11 were clear we thought: compelling objects with compelling stories that reflect the diverse experiences and perspectives of that day. That agenda meant collecting not just objects that tell the stories of death, survival, response and rescue but also ephemeral materials that reflect the outpouring of grief not only on that day but in the weeks and months that followed.

There were obvious precedents for that kind of collecting, for collecting the ephemera of loss: the collecting of such material at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial beginning in the early 1980s; the collection developed at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum following the 1995 bombing in that city; and more recently the collecting led by the Littleton Museum after the Columbine shootings in 1999. While very different circumstances gave rise to each, note that many of these were about domestic terrorism and not about international terrorism. All three collections are overwhelmed with stuffed animals, cards and poems, prayers and religious objects, flags, and a wide range of personal mementos, both spontaneous and intentional, that dramatically reflect the public’s sense of anger and loss. All three have faced enormous challenges in dealing with the sheer volume of materials for which they have found themselves responsible.

The Museum of American History was facing what I would argue was a fundamentally different situation. While in each of those cases - the Vietnam wall, Oklahoma City and Columbine - collecting was an outgrowth of stewardship for a very specific memorial site, the collecting imperative for the Museum of American History with regard to September 11 was fundamentally different. It was quite simply focused on developing a standalone museum collection that would represent all three crash sites, documenting the events of the day and their aftermath.

The museum’s responsibility was not to one memorial site but rather to the national memory, and that meant a different approach to collecting. Without the day-to-day responsibilities for a memorial site that our predecessors faced, the museum arguably did not face the same sense of urgency. We did not have to rush to rescue materials left in our care. As historians and curators we value scholarly distance and perspective, and a cautious approach to collecting divorced from the politics of the moment held much attraction for many of the curators in American history.

When should we collect? When would be the right time? Could we actually wait and develop some distance from that moment or was it instead our responsibility to move in quickly? To be honest, I found arguments at the museum for historical distance rather disingenuous since the museum had long engaged in contemporary collecting. For example, every four years the museum sends curators to collect from presidential primaries and the national political conventions.

I want to make it clear that the debate among curators over timing did not reflect concerns about becoming entwined in a difficult political debate. Indeed, at that moment the nation seemed more unified than ever, with little attention paid to the relatively small number of dissenters or critics. Instead, curators’ reluctance, I believe, masked a deeper concern, a real reticence to face the raw emotions of the moment - a prospect that was outside the comfort zone of curators who were, quite frankly, more at home in the world of scholarly detachment. Fulfilling the museum’s September 11 collecting responsibilities would mean dealing with those still grieving, those still in shock or traumatised. But in the final analysis avoidance was not an option. Particularly when it came to documenting public grief and memorialisation, curators had to move more quickly than in any collecting area to do that. The most compelling makeshift memorials were out of doors and quickly began falling prey to the weather.

What are the ethics of collecting memorials and the ephemera of loss? The museum field expects curators to collect with sensitivity and respect but offers little guidance beyond that for such collecting moments. In acquiring materials from the September 11 crash sites, curators faced unique challenges, juggling the needs and wishes of victims, families and friends with the requirements of official investigations, while wrestling with more sensitive issues such as the almost certain presence of traces of human remains on the objects being collected as well as contaminants such as asbestos.

Collecting the ephemera of loss presented a very different but no less challenging set of issues - and I am making a distinction here between the crash sites and the memorial materials. We normally acquire objects from known donors rather than in the field and we are wary about collecting materials left in spontaneous memorials. Would our urgency in collecting such materials be seen as callous and self-serving, as declaring an end to grief? At a moment when people still hoped their loved ones might be found alive, would museums appear to be telling them that it was over and they should move on? Moreover, collecting these materials and storing them in museums - that is, removing them from public view - would negate the very purpose of the materials, the reasons they were created and left. Should museums remove memorial materials from public view even if the intention is to save them from the weather? As I said earlier, the National Park Service had certainly answered that question affirmatively decades before, every evening systematically removing and preserving materials left at the Vietnam Wall. And that precedent had been invoked in collecting materials in Oklahoma City. But Arnold Lehman, Director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, argued that such collecting violated the very imperative of memorialisation. He argued:

These posters and great collections of flowers and candles are the real thing. This is made up of tears. What happens if, figuratively speaking, you put a box of plexi glass over it?

Indeed, when the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation began clearing memorial materials at Union Square when rain threatened, the public reacted with alarm. How can a museum dare to claim ownership of such very personal, although public, expressions of grief and loss?

Years later David Shayt, a curator at the Museum of American History, reflecting back on his experience, articulated much the same sentiment when he said:

I felt it would be an act of desecration to collect something off a living memorial.

But walking away and allowing the shrines to degrade was not ethically responsible, for it would mean the loss of materials that are in the public interest to preserve; nor was walking away a viable solution. Although the public complained if the outdoor materials were removed, they also complained if they were allowed to deteriorate. Anthropologist Sylvia Grider puts it simply:

Spontaneous memorials lose their emotional impact and symbolic integrity when they become soggy, wind-blown and tattered.

The memorials were not only places of pilgrimage but evidence of our collective grief, and the public made clear in conversations on site and in phone calls and emails that they could not bear to see them degrade as though of no meaning or value. While makeshift in origin the memorials had become icons of shared loss, and preserving them became inextricably tied up in preserving the memory of that day. Museums operate in the public trust, and the public expected us to act accordingly. It was obvious that, whatever the course of action, there would be critics - not for political reasons but for emotional reasons. To use a colloquialism, there was a sense within the museum community of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. There was no easy answer. In the final analysis we needed to collect but had to do so with more sensitivity to emotions than we were accustomed to. That meant, for example, sometimes quelling entrepreneurial collecting impulses - and we have very active entrepreneurs in the curatorial ranks at the museum. We had to clamp down those impulses and wait for materials to be offered.

But beyond the ethical and emotional issues, how much of that material could we realistically collect? The magnitude of memorials was overwhelming. Within days New York City, the flight of the crash site of flight 93 in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon were inundated with spontaneous or makeshift memorials. The material was deeply felt and often highly evocative, but it could literally be measured by the ton.

As you know, for museums, the prospect of collecting that material would be overwhelming. Over the course of two decades the National Parks Service’s collection from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had grown to around 90,000 items. The volume of September 11 materials from New York alone was clearly exponentially greater than that. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum had tried to follow the Park Services precedent and soon found themselves managing a collection that was growing dramatically at significant cost resources but with little additional interpretive or exhibition value.

While some scholars might have preferred that they save everything, they basically didn’t have the resources to do that and still fulfil their public roles. They have since established parameters or criteria for how long memorial materials will be left at specific locations and what kinds of materials will be collected - which directed to outreach and which destroyed. Even with those guidelines in place, the Oklahoma City Museum still has collected over 68,000 memorial items. The harsh reality is that few history museums today have the resources to maintain systematic research collections. Instead, our priorities are representative objects for exhibition, and there are only so many teddy bears and T-shirts you need for that purpose.

Moreover, the Museum of American History, the Museum of the City of New York, the New-York Historical Society, the New York State Museum and the others engaged in documenting September 11 had to consider how to process and house the materials we collected. Memorials are complex composite objects consisting of textiles, candles, organic materials, synthetics, paper tape and other materials - and the unstable nature of those materials poses significant and potentially costly conservation challenges. The structural and varied material instabilities of the memorials presented a particularly perplexing situation.

From a conservation standpoint, the prudent course of action would be to dismantle or disaggregate the memorials and address the varied preservation needs of the different materials that comprise them. But if the power of the memorials is in the assemblage of the materials, wouldn’t such action, however well intentioned, be destructive? Is it indeed more important to preserve the look of the memorial rather than the individual pieces that make it up? Is it enough to photograph memorials and create documentary records, as did the New York Historical Society and the Library of Congress, or must we preserve the actual memorials in their entirety, as did the Museum of the City of New York. They collected the 170-foot long construction fence at the Bellevue Hospital that was covered with flyers, photographs and other materials after September 11 and became known as the ‘Bellevue wall of prayers.’ As such issues were being discussed, conservators, curators and all having these discussions, the clock was ticking: the longer the exposure to weather, the more likely such objects would be to mould, potentially spreading contaminants into the museum’s other collections and threatening the health of its staff.

Museums always have to balance the cost of taking the responsibility for objects offered to their collections with the benefit of preserving them, and in this case the potential costs of preserving could be considerable. Intended to be evocative rather than systematic, the museum collections that were assembled by the various museums convey the complex, idiosyncratic nature of the makeshift memorials and of the memorialisation process. Initially, the photos and messages people were posting were intended not as memorials but as part of the search for the missing. Over 90,000 such missing flyers were posted across New York City alone. But in too short a time, the missing became the lost, and missing flyers became the core of more complex makeshift memorials consisting of jumbles of objects that reflected the outpouring of public grief.

While the Museum of American History did not collect entire memorial installations, others did. For us the issue was not whether it was appropriate or not to collect the memorials but where to best focus our collecting efforts and we believed that our sister museums in New York, for example, were better positioned to take on that agenda. The memorials were indeed site specific, rooted in place, and hence the best fit was with state and local rather than national institutions.

As I said, the Museum of the City of New York collected the Bellevue wall of prayers. The New York State Museum collected three sections from Liberty Plaza as well as makeshift memorials at St Paul’s chapel, the New York City Fire Department and elsewhere. The State Museum also collected the platform on Manhattan’s Fulton Street where people went to view Ground Zero, which was constructed in response to September 11. The utilitarian platform itself became the site of a makeshift memorial.

But all such memorials were not in public. We collected, for example, from a memorial set up in a trailer by the New York Port Authority Police Department to honour fallen comrades. While it was a spontaneous expression of grief, the memorial was actually institutional in context; it was set up by the Port Authority. The museum was not collecting at that moment materials left on the sidewalk. The museum’s curator did not take memorial materials or even ask for them, he collected from the Port Authority memorial only when they were offered. In the context of September 11, many otherwise entrepreneurial curators - now I will tell you the person doing that collecting was among the most entrepreneurial that we had. Many otherwise entrepreneurial curators demonstrated heightened ethical sensitivity. As those memorial materials became museum objects they ceased to be what they were, instead becoming part of our institutionalised memories isolated in the dynamic in which they were created.

A particularly striking case of transformation in meaning was the Chelsea Jeans memorial. The owner of the Chelsea Jeans store on Lower Broadway in Manhattan created his own memorial by walling off a 50-foot-square portion of his shop as it was on September 11, creating essentially a time capsule of ash-covered shelves of jeans, T-shirts and tank tops bearing American flag logos. The owner stated simply, ‘I wanted to preserve it just as it was to freeze this moment in history.’ His memorial in his store became a popular pilgrimage site for visitors to Ground Zero. Then in 2002 the New-York Historical Society acquired the memorial, hazardous materials and all, and commissioned a custom-designed sealed exhibition case that would allow the public to contemplate the memorial without direct exposure to its contents. Covering it with the box of plexi-glass feared by Arnold Lehman arguably heightened its power, conferring on it the status of museum object while dramatically drawing visitor attention to what the Historical Society termed ‘hazardous yet emotionally charged dust’.

This is a view of the Port Authority memorial and one of the objects we collected.

While there was much attention to the spontaneous memorial materials, museums also collected what might be more accurately described as intentional memorial materials. While not spontaneously created, these memorials were still grass roots in origin and rooted in ritual. For example, the Museum of American History collected this scrapbook created by an artist and poet from Mobile, Alabama. Much like a spontaneous memorial, the scrapbook is a powerful personal expression that includes objects and original poetry, along with pictures and newspaper clippings. The choice of format - she reused an old account book - conveys the layered nature of history, the present overlaid on the past. Indeed, much like spontaneous memorials, the scrapbook is an assemblage albeit from a single perspective.

An example of collective rather than individual expression is a community remembrance book collected by the museum from the city of Mountain View, California. The over 300 messages from local residents and drawings by area children were an outpouring of grief from a community that was not directly impacted by the terrorist attacks but was nonetheless grieving. While not part of a spontaneous shrine, this condolence book is arguably part of the same dynamic - a communal opportunity for creative expression of grief, spontaneous on the part of the individuals even if intentional on the part of the community. In other words, the dynamic behind the memorials played out in very different ways for different people in different locations. It was important to document and collect those less dramatic and public expressions as well.

But even if museums have the resources to collect all these kinds of materials, should they? What exactly do memorial materials and the ephemera of loss tell us about history? Certainly, they are important as evidence of grief and mourning, an important part of the moment which connects us to larger issues of how society mourns and copes with tragedy. But how much do we actually need to tell that particular story among all the stories of September 11?

As emotionally evocative as the missing persons posters, spontaneous memorials and commemorative art might be, they do not tell us all the stories that we need to tell. Such objects were created to express grief, and indeed are emotionally compelling, but other less dramatic objects often better tell the story of September 11. Sometimes the most seemingly ordinary or unremarkable objects are the ones that speak most eloquently about the human experience of tragedy.

Thus, the Museum of American History collected some memorial materials but we also collected objects that told stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: The squeegee of window washer Jan Demzcur that was the key to the escape of a group of men from the World Trade Center elevator; the shoes that Cecilia Benavente took off as she escaped from the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center; or Navy Lieutenant Commander David Tarentino’s nametag torn off his shirt by a man he had just met, who wanted to be able to tell about Tarentino’s heroic acts in rescuing survivors at the Pentagon. The nametag was actually given to the museum by the other man - the other man expected Tarentino to die as he tried to rescue other people. In collecting such objects, the Museum of American History did what museums do on a routine basis. We made choices about what to collect, judgment calls that may sometimes appear idiosyncratic but are always grounded in curatorial knowledge and expertise. We had to take care in this situation not to let emotions overrule that judgment. Museum collecting is for the long term, not for the moment, and we had to be prepared to live with and care for what we collected long after the moment had passed.

Collecting memorial materials is, I would argue, a form of field collecting and it was important, but the way in which materials such as the Demzcur and Benavente ones were retrieved was very different. The memorial materials were retrieved often in bulk, and it distanced the museums that were involved in that somewhat from the grief that it represented. When we were collecting materials from the victims’ families or survivors, it was very different for us. In more traditional collecting the transaction between the museum and a known donor just plays out as it will.

In this particular context, however, grief and memorialisation changed that relationship and indeed I would argue is key to understanding the collecting process or relationship after September 11. The collecting transaction between victims’ families and friends and the museum - respectively the gift and the receipt of an object - reflected a different dynamic from field collecting, uniquely grounded in the interplay between grief, memory and history. Giving objects to September 11 collections such as at the museum was itself an expression of grief and an act of memorialisation by the individuals and institutions who did so. The act of giving was a way of memorialising the individual and the day, of ensuring that those stories would not be forgotten. As such, donating to the museum became part of what Ed Linenthal describes as ‘active grief’, moving beyond private, intimate passive grief to take action to preserve the memory of a moment and its consequences. While not as spontaneous an expression as the shrines, such donations were nevertheless self-directed and intensely personal, unlike official memorials. The need on the part of many people to express their grief in this way created collecting opportunities for curators. Instead of holding on to objects for their individual needs, when people offered them to museums they offered them to public memory.

But that active grief also made the work of curators more difficult. They more often had to say ‘no thank you’ to individuals struggling to address their grief and wanting to preserve their memories through gifts to museums. We could not collect everything no matter the reason for the offer, and this was enormously stressful for the curators. They spent most of their days saying ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’ because of the level of offers.

After we met a certain milestone in our involvement in September 11, we had a lunch in which the director asked us to talk about our experiences, and some of the curators broke down in tears talking about what it had been like for them. These were people who were often working outside the area of expertise that they had. The curator who collected through the mortuary unit at the Pentagon is actually a specialist in domestic life, the home. But he knew how to collect; he knew how to make decisions; and he moved in that direction.

Similarly, when museums collected such objects, they were also arguably participating in the act of memorialisation. Not simply being neutral collecting institutions going about their business, in choosing objects and bringing them into our museum’s collections we infuse them with power. Consider, for example, this object: it’s a firefighters pry bar used to pry open things, and it was collected by the Museum of American History. It is a standard firefighters’ tool and it had been owned by New York Fire Department Lieutenant Kevin Pfeifer. Pfeifer was killed in the World Trade Center collapse and the pry bar was given to the museum in his memory by his brother. His brother was Fire Department Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer. Chief Pfeifer was in charge at the World Trade Center and had sent his brother into the World Trade Center on September 11 and never saw him again. The pry bar is all that they were able to identify. In deciding to collect this object, the museum conferred on it special status. This ordinary object, one that every firefighter on the scene had, was transformed into one of the objects of September 11, part of the nation’s collection and part of the official memory of that day. Lieutenant Pfeifer’s story took on a level of meaning it would not otherwise have had. It ceased to be a private story of loss and became part of the public narrative, indeed part of our collective memory.

Tied up in this concept of memorialisation is what I call relics, objects that may provide immediate, tangible, intimate connections to the past but do not constitute historical evidence or proof. Such objects often are no more than touchstones or keepsakes. They evoke feelings of the moment but do not help us understand what happened. In the context of September 11, ordinary objects or fragments, such as pieces of twisted steel from the World Trade Center and airplane fragments, became objects of extraordinary emotional, if not religious, importance. In taking these objects into our collections we performed an active role in our collective grief, declaring them icons of our shared loss, concrete testimony to that day and its impact. While the stories of September 11 are far more complicated than can be conveyed with a piece of steel, a fragment of architecture or an airplane fragment, such objects were immensely important to the public from their perspective constituting memorials to those who died that day.

Museums also participated more directly and consciously in public memorialisation. The Museum of the City of New York created a virtual Union Square, an online version of the spontaneous memorials cropping up around the city. Visitors to the Museum of the City of New York website were invited to contribute artwork, photographs or remembrances as they were doing at locations around the city at the same time.

The Museum of American History partnered with George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center to collect September 11 stories through the web. Individuals have left over 12,500 stories about what they did, saw or heard on September 11 - some long and detailed but others simple statements of loss or anger. The resultant September 11 digital archive became a form of online memorial, a place to remember and reflect, to share the stories and images that constitute the memory of that day. It also became a vehicle for preserving some of what I will tell you about in a moment.

The Museum of American History hoped that the development of this web-based archive would take off some of the pressure to memorialise September 11, a function we were not entirely comfortable with. Well aware of the tension between memory and history, between memorialisation and historical interpretation, the museum saw the digital archive as a vehicle for sharing space, for sharing voice, a virtual space for memory.

Museums played an important role in the public’s transition from active grief to memory to history in the months that followed the terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath, spontaneous shrines functioned as pilgrimage sites, providing places at which we could attempt ‘to come to grips with events which numb our emotions and defy explanations.’ Sylvia Grider has written:

… shrines reduce the overwhelming enormity of the catastrophe to a more manageable scale, thus helping to make the event more comprehensible.’

I will explain what that [slide] is in a minute. As the days stretched into weeks and months and the temporary shrines were dismantled, museums faced pressure to step in and fill that need for a sacred space. Some museums embraced that role as part of their mission as cultural institutions, arguing that museums could play an important role in civic healing. Others, such as the Museum of American History, emphasised repeatedly that museums and memorials serve fundamentally different purposes. We argued that the function of museums is to provide historical meaning or understanding but that the role of memorials is only to evoke emotion and inspire memory with messages that are very selective and lacked the complexity or nuance that are at the heart of good history.

This perspective of memorials and museums as separate functions is institutionalised, for example, in the establishment of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza that is separate from the John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and in the development - this is what the images are of - of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum where the museum is inside, the memorial is outside. The empty chairs and the survivor tree are the memorial part of the site. The September 11 National Memorial and Museum will similarly consist of two very distinct spaces: one for memorialisation and one for the museum.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a number of the museums in New York invited the public to write in memory books, light candles or draw pictures; in other words, to express their grief within the museum walls as they were doing elsewhere around the city. The New York State Museum decided to embrace that role more formally, erecting in a gallery that November two silhouettes of the twin towers of the World Trade Center composed of small bronze squares representing individuals who had died there. Naming it the World Trade Center Memorial, the Museum explicitly adopted a memorial role.

But others stopped short of that role and rather than becoming memorials they exhibited memorial material, proposing that exhibiting such materials was a more appropriate healing role for museums. The materials would provide a context for people to reflect and remember. The New York Fire Museum created a changing exhibit of memorial materials. The Mesoamerica Foundation developed a travelling exhibition of missing flyers entitled ‘Missing: last seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001’ and City Lore organised another exhibition entitled ‘Missing’, which was photographs of the memorials.

The Museum of American History tried to avoid any involvement in memorialisation, arguing that what museums do is provide perspective and context. While we are collecting memorial materials we are trying not to become a memorial ourselves. We did not really want to become a vehicle for expressions of grief or condolence but we quickly learnt that the public did not understand or share that perspective, that distinction. They did not see the difference between a memorial and a museum, and indeed we received proposal after proposal for memorials to take portions of the World Trade Center or a smashed fire truck and to establish a place at the museum where Americans could honour those who had lost their lives.

As the first anniversary loomed in 2002, that discussion became more than theoretical: how would the Museum of American History mark the one year anniversary? Should the museum’s goal be simply to provide a place to remember and reflect; or should it try to do more, to interpret the events of September 11? Could we bring historical perspective to this event only one year later; or should we even try? What would be the appropriate role for the museum?

We spent quite a bit of time working through those questions and debating what we should do and concluded that, although we did not feel that we had the distance or perspective to explain the events of September 11, we could provide a place for Americans to come together to mark that anniversary, a place to remember and reflect. We had, for example, Ed Linenthal who has written on Oklahoma City National Memorial, on Pearl Harbor and on the Holocaust Museum come in and we talked to him: what should we do, what do you think is the right role for us? And we concluded that we should indeed serve a memorial function, despite our initial misgivings. We also recognised that at that moment that was, quite frankly, the only politically feasible response. Few people would welcome a careful explanation of why September 11 happened. The time was simply not right. What we could and should do, we concluded, is provide a place for public commemoration and memorialisation, acknowledge the many voices, stories and perspectives of that day, and give visitors opportunities to contribute, not simply observe. In other words, we could provide a sacred space, a place for civic healing.

On September 11, 2002, we opened the exhibit September 11: bearing witness to history. In developing the exhibit the museum looked to the work of colleagues at not only the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum but also the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, each of which have demonstrated that the emotional impact for the visitor of being physically confronted with the raw material of history, of being asked to remember and reflect, can be a powerful step in the process of questioning and understanding broader historical issues.

Arguably, the look and feel of the museum was more memorial than museum. The design was spare, with the objects spaced apart for emotional impact. It was an open, quiet space for contemplation and reflection. The museum worked with grief counsellors in developing the exhibit. It was designed so that you could always see your way out so that you could always make choices about what to see. The museum did not attempt to tell a comprehensive story but rather to evoke the day and its aftermath. The exhibit focused on victims, survivors and rescuers rather than on the terrorists, relegating the terrorists to only brief mentions.

The museum crafted the exhibition as a place for memory, arguing that every one of us, everyone who came to that museum, was part of that story of bearing witness to history and that we all had memories that we should share. We took care to share voice and authority with not only the victims, survivors and rescuers but all of our visitors. In other words, after all that debate, the museum engaged with the public on very personal levels and that was very much a departure for us. We usually just interpret the past with millions of visitors coming through every year.

The events of September 11 were still fresh in many people’s minds, and the exhibition was designed to evoke strong emotions and memories. The museum, however, did not surrender all ground. The museum avoided perhaps the defining element of a memorial: there was no list of victims. Instead, the museum simply dedicated the exhibit to the victims, the survivors and the rescuers. Over its ten-month run at the museum, the exhibition became a pilgrimage site with over a million visitors quietly filing through it as though on holy ground.

While the public response exceeded all expectations, the exhibition did not evoke the one response we were concerned about: it did not become a memorial site. No-one left objects or tokens; no-one responded to it as they did to the spontaneous memorials or to official memorials. But perhaps that was because the museum incorporated into the exhibition opportunities for visitors to express themselves through the written word, the spoken word and drawing as well as to express themselves later through the exhibition website.

At the end of the exhibition visitors were asked: how did you witness history on September 11? How has your life been affected by that day? They could respond, as you can see [image shown], by either writing or drawing on cards provided by the museum or speaking over a phone set up in the space. While there were some expressions of anger toward not only the terrorists but Muslims in general, few expressed political sentiments beyond pride and patriotism, with numerous repetitions of God bless America or United we stand.

What runs through nearly all the comments are expressions of sadness, loss and fear. If you read that one [image shown] it says simply, ‘I’m not a fearful person. I am now.’ Altogether over 20,000 of the cards have been digitised and 425 voice mails have been preserved, all made available through the website I mentioned earlier, the September 11 digital archive. Selected cards were also posted in the exhibition, much as expressions of grief and condolence were shared at the spontaneous shrines.

The overall experience of the exhibition was communal with the visitors grouped quietly around tables sharing with each other their responses. In sum, the exhibition clearly served a memorial function, and the museum indeed engaged in memorialisation despite our original intentions. The World Trade Center visitor centre, the tribute centre, has since established a similar area, collecting tens of thousands of visitor response cards in 47 languages from individuals from 110 countries.

Conclusion: Americans responded to September 11 with grief for themselves and anger toward the terrorists and those who supported them. Indeed, it provided an ‘all too rare’ sense of connectedness. Unfortunately, racial profiling and discrimination, uncritical patriotism, and war were also consequences of that day. September 11 posed challenges for museums as they attempted to do their work in a new and difficult context, but that context did not really include political criticism or censorship, and collecting was never politicised.

While the actions or positions of American museums after September 11 may be viewed from outside the country as political - within the United States they were not. The only differences or disagreements had to with museums’ collecting jurisdictions not the politics of what we collected, and even those tensions were eased. We created a 30 museum collecting consortium at the end of September 2001. The use of September 11 collections in future exhibitions, however, will almost certainly be contested. As the shock of September 11 fades in the memory and as we approach the tenth anniversary, museums face the challenge of coming to grips with why terrorists attacked the United States and what that says about the nation’s role in a globalised society. We know - and I am happy to talk about this - that an honest assessment is certain to be unsettling for the public and we know that it will be unacceptable for the victims’ families.

The challenge not only for the Museum of American History but all museums regarding September 11 was to steer a course that responded to the needs and concerns of the public without compromising our fundamental commitment to making meaning of the past. But then that is always our goal. What was different was the level of emotion that constituted the context for, and shaped, our work. We faced new challenges to our sense of our work and ourselves as professionals. It was critical that we responded to those challenges thoughtfully and positively, embracing the opportunity to help our visitors understand these tragic events and contributing to the nation’s healing. Thank you. [applause]

LOUISE DOUGLAS: September 11 was obviously an extraordinarily serious event in world history. What we have just had is a unique insight into how an institution handled the responsibilities that came with documenting that event, and something about some of the personal challenges that clearly the staff faced as well. We have a little bit of time for questions.

JAMES GARDNER: And I will also be around for a few days if people want to talk elsewhere.

LOUISE DOUGLAS: You can actually make a time to talk to Jim separately because he is here for a couple of days. Or if staff from other institutions would like him to come and visit them, I am sure that can be arranged as well. Come and talk to me, Mat or Jim at the conclusion of this talk. If you have a question, I am going to ask you to use the microphone because we are recording this event for podcasting on our website.

QUESTION: Mike Pickering from the National Museum. You identified that some of the objects being collected may be contaminated by human tissue, which is obviously a concern to the 9/11 memorial museum as well and probably to any museum doing any collecting at all. How has the Museum of American History addressed that issue?

JAMES GARDNER: There were several things that were done. First of all, objects were generally bagged as soon as they were collected until we knew what we were dealing with. One of the issues was that conservators tended to want to clean or they wanted to do things to them. We wanted to do testing but we didn’t want a wipe sample to show on the object if we were exhibiting it. We did some testing: we sent a number of the objects to a laboratory where they could do lofting tests, because the issue was not just what’s on it that you would touch but what would loft off the object into the air, and then you get into issues of contaminating the exhibition space and putting visitors at risk. There were a whole series of ways that we tested both the substance on the objects and what would loft from them.

One of the things we wanted to do though was have in the exhibit, that people could touch, a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. What we ended up doing was basically covering the object with wax. It wasn’t apparent if you were looking at it but it certainly would protect visitors from any contamination. The issue was that conservators wanted to deal with the contaminants and the curators wanted to preserve the contaminants, so it was always a negotiated process back and forth.

Some of the objects remain contained. This flag, which was pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center, is actually encapsulated because it is so contaminated. It is not just that it’s fragile but that it’s also contaminated. So it is encapsulated and a number of things were encapsulated. It really was a negotiation in trying to see what to do. This is an area where you don’t want the objects to be clean; you want the objects to be what they were; and that was a difficult deal to work out. But the ones that are dangerous are encapsulated or contained. Some testing has been done, but we really didn’t clean anything.

MIKE PICKERING: Has there been any expression of concern by families about the collection and display of objects that may be contaminated by human tissue?

JAMES GARDNER: You mean concern by victims’ families?

MIKE PICKERING: Yes.

JAMES GARDNER: No. The one place where the issue of human remains, the dust of human remains, came into play - the National Museum of the American Indian, which is a Smithsonian museum, has a facility in lower Manhattan that became very dusty. They actually held a ceremony before they cleaned anything because they wanted to deal with it as human remains rather than as dust. They really went through this in a more religious way than the other museums did. Plus we weren’t located there so we weren’t running into that same issue.

QUESTION: Kate Cowie from the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. I noted during the exhibition that you had quiet spaces and a large number of visitors. I wondered what strategies you had in place for your front of house staff to deal with distressed people and people who needed help getting through the experience.

JAMES GARDNER: There were two different things we did. First of all, we closed the museum before the opening and opened it up only to victims’ families and friends, survivors and rescuers. We had a full day so that they could come privately rather than going through the exhibition publicly. We thought that would be the group that would be most distressed by the exhibit. So we did that. We actually had grief counsellors in the exhibition throughout that day to deal with people, and they did indeed have to deal with people. I recall seeing a man walk through one area, turn around and just put his head against the wall and sob. We sent someone over to help him get through it, to sit him down and all that.

We didn’t have that dramatic a response within the exhibition from the public. We were concerned on the front end that the atmosphere might not be appropriate but we never had an instance in which anyone went through that exhibit that was not quiet and respectful. It was a very religious experience in a strange way. We have millions of visitors and they ping pong around and are noisy and all that, but here people stood in line all the way through the exhibition. We had rows of chairs for people to sit in. The front of house was making certain to replenish the Kleenex boxes and take out the trash, which is not something we normally do but that was something that had to be done in that regard. We also had staffing in the ‘tell us your story’ section so that there would be someone there to take their cards, to thank them and to be engaged with them. We had occasions where we had VIPs. The First Lady came and sat down at the table and filled out her own card. So that sort of thing was all part of it. But apart from the families, we had less of that emotional response. People were simply quiet. They might be crying but not the sobbing and really dramatic. We had training for the front of house staff in how to deal with it. I think it was the Red Cross that provided training in grief counselling so that they would know how to respond if indeed we had someone. We always had staff in and around the exhibition.

QUESTION: Tikka Wilson, National Museum. I wanted to ask whether or not you wanted to, or if you did, collect any objects that related to the other stories that you can’t tell yet, so specifically about the terrorists or their families - even other kinds of interpretations that people might be ready to hear ten years on and probably certainly 50 years on.

JAMES GARDNER: We did collect a number of things that have never been exhibited, some that probably won’t be exhibited next year. We thought ten years out there would be some sort of distance. There is more distance on the part of the public; there is absolutely no distance on the part of the victims’ families and friends. They have made it absolutely clear. The World Trade Center National Memorial and museum is really under attack for having a corridor that deals with the terrorists themselves. The families are adamantly opposed to it and consider it inappropriate. So that is sort of part of it.

One of the interesting things about the Smithsonian and the US federal government is that through a court case it has been deemed that transferring objects to the Smithsonian does not break the chain of evidence. So the FBI can transfer things to us without breaking the chain of evidence, which is something that they prefer in case there is litigation or criminal prosecution at some point. There is collecting undergoing. We have curators who sat down with the evidence files at the FBI and sort of said, ‘I will take this one, that one, and that one.’ We haven’t actually brought that material into the museum and are trying to close that up right now, but we have already identified what we would collect from the FBI evidence files. We have a few things in the collection as it is. I think we have an Islamic prayer book that was found in one of the crash sites. There are very few things like that, but it’s really interesting dealing with this and dealing with the terrorist side of it.

One thing that I didn’t talk about is at the same time as we had the exhibit we created a series of programs called ‘Crossroads,’ in which we took on the topics that we didn’t think we could do in an exhibit, in that particular medium. The Crossroads discussions dealt with things like racial profiling. We had a lunchtime discussion in which we invited the public in, we had people out on the Metro handing out flyers to get people to come to the museum, and we talked about racial profiling. We had colleagues from the Japanese American National Museum talking about parallels to the ways that Japanese Americans were treated after World War II. I moderated a session between two very different points of view about the conflict between the West and the Muslim world, and what we know or think we know of what’s behind the hostility that September 11 clearly demonstrated. I think we also had a discussion on gender and the different roles. Part of what we were trying to do was help people understand how complicated it all was, both in terms of our actions and in terms of the Muslim world and where terrorism fits into that world, and all of that. So we were dealing some of those things.

Within the exhibit at one point we had a line in one of the labels that said ‘1000 and whatever people died at the World Trade Center’. Families insisted that we change that number because we had included the terrorists as dying. They wanted to say ‘1000 and so many victims’ and then the number of terrorists. They did not want the victims and terrorists rolled into one number.

Next year is going to be a huge problem: it’s the tenth anniversary, and we are trying to sort out what we are trying to do. One of the things that we will almost certainly do is have a symposium that will be more about memory and history. What we want to do for the symposium - that we will do in the days before September 11 - is bring together people with different points of view on different moments. We will have a session on the politics of memory; we will have a session on memory and museums; and one on the architect of memory that will really focus on monuments and memorials, and will include people on both sides. We are trying to move it from beyond this one event to look at Oklahoma City, Columbine and the Vietnam Wall and all that sort of thing. That’s a program, a symposium.

What are we going to do on the exhibit side? We’re not doing an exhibit - in part because we don’t know where we would get the money to do an exhibit that would be big enough to make people happy. Small scale is not going to be good. It has to be big. What we are going to do is spend the week running up to September 11 with - we often do what we call objects out of storage in which we bring collections out - a rather large gallery space where there will be some images and perhaps a few objects in a case. But we are going to have curators out with objects on tables talking to visitors about how they were collected, what they mean and having a more personal or intimate relationship with our visitors than an exhibition. We are hoping it will work. It remains to be seen.

LOUISE DOUGLAS: I think we will definitely have to try to get some Australians to that symposium, but in the mean time thank you very much for coming to us. Can you please join me in thanking Jim Gardner. [applause]

[A version of this talk will be published later this year as ‘September 11: museums, spontaneous memorials, and history,’ in Grassroots Memorials: The Politics of Memorializing Traumatic Death, edited by Peter Jan Margry and Cristina Sanchez-Carretero, Berghahn Books, New York.]

Date published: 12 October 2010