I don’t know why I was surprised. In December the New-York Historical Society began advertising its newest permanent exhibit: a collection of artifacts related to the September 11 attacks. First there was ecotourism; now, there’s terror-tourism.
Most New Yorkers are natural cynics, myself included. That’s probably why I expected the exhibit to be a real tearjerker. I entered the Historical Society’s lobby bracing myself for large placards. Surprisingly, I had to ask the attendant for directions to the show. I was told to go to the fourth floor, where, stepping off the elevator, I once again needed guidance. A security guard pointed me to an unmarked glass case—no star-spangled banners, no signs reading “God Bless America.”
This tasteful, understated approach was intentional, according to Amy Weinstein, the Society’s assistant curator for twentieth- and twenty-first-century materials. “The theme, if you could call it that, was relics and souvenirs of the building and of the attacks. Many of the objects tell an intimate and personal story,” she said, “while others tell a more broad narrative.”
Inside the case was a pair of black Ferragamo leather loafers, worn by a survivor of the incident. Other items included a barely used paper cup imprinted with the Red Cross logo, a specimen jar filled with dust and ash, fragments of the airplanes (displayed courtesy of the FBI), a hard hat and respirator worn by a rescuer at Ground Zero and a place setting from the Windows on the World restaurant, preserved only because it was borrowed for a dinner party days before September 11 by restaurateur David Emil.
The Red Cross cup was curious. What made this worth preserving? What could it add to the 9/11 debate? Weinstein explained that it was simply symbolic of one aspect of the early relief effort. “One of the curators saw that paper cup discarded in the street, most likely either by a volunteer for the Red Cross or a fireman who took a break for a few seconds. Or,” she said, “it could have been Mayor Giuliani. I don’t know.”
Other items in the display were similarly open to interpretation. Although a label identified where the ash and dust in the specimen case were collected, visitors couldn't be sure of its origins or contents. “Those could be someone’s remains,” said Deborah Goodman, a visitor from Boston.
Looking the artifacts over at length, Goodman and her husband said they were pleased to see this kind of display there. “With the rest of the things here,” she said, “we look at them and think, ‘That’s an interesting piece of furniture,’ but it doesn’t mean anything to us because we don’t remember those events. We remember this.”
But if recent history is so clearly etched in our memories, do we need to display the relics? Is this the museum equivalent of reality TV—voyeuristic and morbid? What do we gain from displaying an anonymous office worker’s mangled desk clock?
“I think some people need a display like this,” said David King, who was visiting from Newfane, Vermont. “That way, 9/11 isn’t just a string of numbers. Having these objects here makes it real.”
There is also, I suppose, the consideration of safeguarding the artifacts for visitors in the future. Part of the Historical Society’s stated mission is to preserve evidence of life in New York City for the public of today and tomorrow. This sounds like a worthy mission, but it does raise some questions.
When tragedy strikes, people in the industrialized world today feel the need to memorialize endlessly with paintings, photographs, films, exhibits and the like. Somehow, other cultures seem better able to mourn and move on. We haven’t heard, for instance, about curators in Iraq collecting shell fragments, paper cups and unexploded cluster bombs for display in a future exhibit about life in Baghdad.
Perhaps when history is this ugly, it’s better to look forward than to look back.