Curating Tragedy

To quote the Alan Jackson song, where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?

Melbourne was supposed to be next, but today snuck up unexpectedly fast and I wanted to get some thoughts out On This Day.

I had the recent great fortune of going on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the 9/11 section of the Smithsonian’s American History museum. The curator-tour-guide was talking about the curating challenges that this particular event presented and how they ended up focusing on the stories of the people involved – the victims, the responders, ordinary Americans. Anything too close to the ongoing(?) wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would tread dangerously political terrain far outside the Museum’s purview. One of the 9/11 curators, Peter Liebhold, wrote up something on the museum’s website about the challenges of curating for this event:

Two days later a large group of curators got together to discuss what to do; opinions differed widely. Some wanted to quickly assemble teams to descend on the three sites and gather ephemeral evidence of the terrorist attacks. Some were horrified by the death and destruction (we usually document high points in history) and thought we should wait ten or twenty years until it was clear what was significant. Others thought we should collect September 11 as we collect any topic—by curatorial specialty.

A month later, Jim Gardner (then Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs) looked around and saw that very little had been collected. He asked a group of three curators—Bill Yeingst, David Shayt, and me—to create a foundation collection around September 11. We drew up a plan: collect material which led up to the attack, artifacts of the attack itself, and objects documenting the rescue and clean-up. We decided not to collect the memorialization aspects. Bill focused on the Pentagon, David on New York, and I concentrated on the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In the end we never collected materials which might give insight into the events leading up to the September 11 attacks. We did a good job of documenting the attack itself and the clean-up.

It was an interesting collection of items on display for us: an M&M dispenser from a desk at the Pentagon. An archival box lid full of the twisted remains of airplane seat belts. The flight log of one of the flight attendants on Flight 93. An air marshall’s weapon and badge. An oxygen mask. A circa 2001 cell phone.

It was rather powerful to see all of those items within touching distance and hear the stories behind them. It was even more powerful to hear about the curators and what they went through. Our curator-turned-tour-guide (who was not a 9/11 curator) told us that the 9/11 curators weren’t the same afterwards, that they were “messed up”. Their work took a physical toll on them but what was worse was the psychological toll. Imagine being an historian by training, but sifting through hazardous material that still smells like the day it happened, sorting through photographs and stories of the dead, and contemplating human nature with an historian’s long view forward and backward. I have a fairly strong constitution and the thought of the task that faced them is enough to make my stomach turn.

I would not call these curators “heroes,” a term which is used far too commonly for my tastes. Nor were they “victims.” In a world where there are either heroes or victims, I would put these guys somewhere in the middle, who gave something, but not everything, so future generations would be able to better understand this event that has come to define 21st Century America*.

In some ways, this accomplishes what they had initially set out to do. The Museum staff guessed (rightly so, as it would later be proven) that when you think of the terrorist attacks, you think of the people first: the people on Flight 93 who crashed their plane and saved the Capitol; or the story floating around my Facebook page of Steve Buscemi, actor, former NYFD, and first responder, who didn’t want to be photographed because this wasn’t about him; or a story I read years ago about a little old lady who made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to first responders because that was the only thing she could do. The Museum did such a good job that it’s easy to forget someone had to collect the stories being told, and this is a chance for their story to be told.




*To clarify: I don’t just mean the curators and historians at the Smithsonian. I don’t know their stories but I am certain other institutions sent their staff for the same reasons.



Image Source:


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s