20 Years Later, 9/11 Is Remembered At The NYS Museum
Most times in their work, historians and museum staff are looking back decades and even centuries. But in the case of September 11, 2001, curators from the New York State Museum responded to history as it was happening. Museum staff from Albany went to Ground Zero in New York City to collect objects and document the aftermath of the terror attack. One year later, the first part of the museum’s exhibit opened. 20 years on, WAMC's Jim Levulis toured the now three-part exhibit with senior historian and curator Aaron Noble.
Noble: Visitors entering the exhibit gallery are first immediately confronted with an proximately 20-foot fragment of World Trade Center steel, which just gives such a visual note to the size of the of the scope and the scale of the buildings. This is a really only a kind of a two-story portion of the steel. And when you're talking about 110-story buildings, it's just an incredibly impactful piece. And then right behind that, you get your first glimpse of the Engine Six pumper from the FDNY. One of the first vehicles to respond to the Trade Center attack. It was badly damaged and four of its members were killed when the buildings collapsed. And so it's a very stunning and impactful piece that really attributes to the heroism and the efforts of the FDNY and other first responders to save people on September 11, 2001.
Levulis: And looking at the engine itself, the front half is scorched. But the back half still retains all its paint, it's a bit damaged. What's the significance of that?
Noble: So Engine Six was one of the two pumper companies in the FDNY that had trucks with the capacity to actually pump water up to the 110th story of the World Trade Center. So it was specifically purchased for the World Trade Center, it was located just a couple blocks away on Beekman Street. So it's very close to the buildings for that reason. It had parked under what had been a pedestrian bridge over Vesey Street in lower Manhattan. And when the buildings collapse, the footbridge collapsed on top of the rear of the truck and actually preserved the truck. The front was exposed to the fire that followed the collapse of the buildings. And one of the reasons Engine Six was selected to be brought here to the museum was the fact that it both retains the immediate recognizability of being an FDNY vehicle, but also just the sheer trauma that the vehicle underwent. So it was very symbolic and impactful in that respect.
Levulis: And if we just walk over more toward the engine here and take a look at some of the other portions of the exhibit here. We have a timeline that details the rescue and the timeline of the events on that day. And just want to get the museum's thinking in depicting it in this sort of fashion with these objects that we have in front of us here, a New York Post headline, why take this approach in documenting it sort of minute by minute?
Noble: So the exhibit opened in September of 2002. So it was very fresh in everyone's mind. And much of the effort was actually still ongoing in terms of the reconstruction of the site and kind of grappling with that. Museums, we've used timelines in a variety of projects. And it's a very visual and easy way for visitors to kind of digest the information. Most times our timelines are not as compressed as this one which is just the first 24 hours from the sunrise on September 11 to sunrise on September 12, 2001. But we felt that it was a good way to document really, all of these kind of critical events that were happening in just these 102 minutes between when the planes first struck the towers to the collapse of the second tower and documenting how decisions and kind of events impacted what transpired on that day. And so one of the reasons the New York Post issue is the first object you encounter is that September 11, 2001 was a primary election day in New York City. It was one of those events, along with the first day of public school in the city that took people out of their normal routines. So people had stopped on their way to work to vote at their local polling place, or they had taken their kids to school or waited to see them off. So they were out of their routines so that there were people that may have been at the Trade Center earlier on a normal day that had been held up for a variety of reasons. And it was a way to kind of emphasize really the anonymous and kind of haphazard nature of who was in the building at that time. And really the fortunate circumstances for so many people that we've encountered, and that they, for whatever reason, were late getting to work and therefore weren’t at their desks at the time of impact.
Levulis: You mentioned this portion of the exhibit opened a year after September 11. That's an incredible turnaround in the scope of putting together a historical account of it. How did the staff of the museum do that?
Noble: This occurred prior to my being here, but the staff was involved almost from the very first day. I mean, it was clear that this is a historic event. So museums from the state and New York City began meeting in early October 2001 to discuss and address how historical organizations and institutions should respond. It was clear that this is a historic event. It was clear during the recovery efforts that the ability to collect and have materials to interpret the events was going to be a very limited window. And therefore, state museum staff were down at Ground Zero and we're down at the recovery operations on Staten Island at the former Fresh Kills landfill. Very early on working closely with FDNY, FBI, NYPD and other responders trying to assess what should be saved, what could be saved, how to document the tragedy. And the State Museum because of its kind of situation as a state entity, not only were we physically distant being here in Albany, that gave us the ability to continue operations, whereas many of the New York City museums at the time were directly impacted and were closed, they couldn't access their facilities. They were still dealing with the traumatic impacts of their own staff and their own loved ones. So we had the physical distance, but also being a state agency, we were able to call on the resources of the state of New York. So organizations and agencies from Education Department, the Office of General Services, New York State Police, Division of Military And Naval Affairs, the New York National Guard, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Tax and Finance I mean, you can name any agency and at some point they probably had some role on whether it was just providing information or logistics or something in documenting the response and also helping with the preservation of the objects. So the Engine Six pumper for example, after it had been selected by the State Museum, it was transported by members in New York National Guard, with the assistance of the Department of Transportation, Thruway Authority and State Police from Fresh Kills landfill to Midrange Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley were incarcerated men were being trained to do asbestos abatement and decontamination, and a special structure was constructed around the pumper, and these men cleaned every inch of it to make sure that it wasn't toxically contaminated. They then brought the families and surviving members of Engine Six to the facility to conduct a hose laying ceremony in the back and as a kind of final memorial, as it made its trip from Mid-Orange to the State Museum here in Albany, again with National Guard support so that that one truck kind of highlights the fact that we had resources that smaller New York City-based organizations didn't necessarily have.
Levulis: And with the understanding that this portion of the exhibit was put together, as we mentioned, one year after the event, looking at the exhibit now 20 years later, from a historical standpoint how do you think it holds up?
Noble: The timeline itself holds up well. There are a few things that we've learned that we would change. And we will change as we get moving into a gallery renewal for this part of the exhibit. One of the challenges now is that as we move further and further away from the event, our role as an educational institution becomes more paramount. The exhibit, rightfully so, is very much a memorial to the events of the day and to the efforts of FDNY, NYPD, Port Authority, and other responders. But as we've moved in the last several years, we're now to a point where school-aged children, high school students are of an age that they were not alive and hadn't been born at the time of the event. So we've moved from an exhibit interpreting something that was in everybody's kind of collective memory, to something that we need to better address in terms of contextualizing the event for future visitors. So that's something we're examining very closely and in discussions about how we go about addressing that.
Levulis: And as we continue to move through the exhibit, the next portion of it is the recovery, detailing the recovery efforts. Can you give a quick overview of what we're looking at here?
Noble: So visitors immediately see a large panoramic of the site, the hilltop in Staten Island, where FDNY, FBI and NYPD recovery workers undertook the largest criminal forensic investigation in American history and probably world history. Filtering through millions of pounds of materials that were removed from the World Trade Center site and brought for sorting at Fresh Kills. On the wall, at the beginning of the section, visitors will notice a small glass marble in a case on the wall. And that marble was recovered early on in the operations there and was carried by the lead FBI investigator, Special Agent Richard Marx, in order to show families who were coming to the site to receive briefings on recovery operations to show to the level at which these massive piles of material were being sorted to the to the size of this marble in order for them to try and find any kind of evidence or remains of their loved ones. So it was a real testament to the dedication and devotion of the men and women at Fresh Kills to their task and their mission. And so this portion of the exhibit is very much a testament to that effort and the close relationship that eventually developed between the State Museum and the investigators there, you know, in terms of the fact that they actually became kind of curators on the ground, where by the end of the operations in July of 2002, they would actually set things aside that they felt themselves were important to be preserved. So that when museum staff would come down, they would have these buckets and piles of material to be considered for accession into the museum collection.
Levulis: And what are some of those items? Are they some of the everyday items that we would have seen?
Noble: Yeah, most of what you'll see there are kind of items of everyday, kind of the ubiquity of office life at 110-story office building. So there's keys and elevator plaques. And for older visitors, they'll find a fused set of three and a half-inch floppy disks, portions of a computer, a payphone – things that were in 2001 very common, which again, kind of showing the context of it, are things that need to be better and more closely interpreted because many of our visitors don't know what a payphone is. But what visitors won't see here are kind of the personal items of the victims or survivors. And that was a very conscious decision made in 2001 by the police and the FBI. Anything that could be identified to a person was set aside to be repatriated to either their loved ones or the survivors themselves. And so the museum was collecting really to talk about the life of the Trade Center without necessarily personalizing, it was such a raw event at that time that there was no real consideration to it approach or even attempt to collect items from individuals.
Levulis: And as we turn here toward the end of the recovery exhibit here, we do also see portions of aircraft. Why did the museum decide to include this in the exhibit?
Noble: The discussions about whether or not to include pieces of the plane, because the exhibit was being installed so close to the event, there was a lot of debate about whether it was appropriate, and not only to exhibit it, but whether it was even appropriate to preserve. Some of the staff from the museum believed that it shouldn't be collected, it shouldn't be preserved. And again, here is the importance of the curators on the ground kind of effort that was going on at Fresh Kills.
It was actually some of the United and American Airlines workers that were at the site helping with identifying airplane parts that pulled staff aside from the museum and really encouraged them to preserve it, because they realized that if it wasn't saved by the State Museum, that it would have been buried and would have been lost to history. So with that kind of encouragement the museum decided to collect and with the assistance of the FBI, the museum became the official repository for the salvaged and recovered aircraft parts. Then as the museum developed exhibit plans, they work very closely with family groups particularly, to kind of make the determination of whether or not these plane parts should be included.
So on the timeline, we have an aircraft armrest with a portion of a seatbelt embedded into the timeline and the questions of if that was too visually impactful and emotionally fraught for visitors, particularly in 2001, because it's an incredibly powerful piece. And it's something that anyone that's traveled on an aircraft will be intimately familiar with it. And as they were developing the plans for the exhibit and designing and installing the exhibit, they brought the father of a young woman who was a flight attendant on one of the flights in and had been killed and showed him this piece. And his reaction was that it brought him closer to his daughter, it was a piece of a tangible item that allowed him a little bit of proximity to his daughter. And it was that reaction that really kind of solidified for many of the staff here that it was an appropriate and something that should be included.
Levulis: And as we move here to the final portion of the exhibit, it's the response. And this piece, this portion of the exhibit, details the response in New York City. And we're looking here at a church pew. Aaron, could you describe the significance of this?
Noble: So the church pew is from St. Paul's Chapel, which is a historic church in lower Manhattan, just a few 100 yards from the original World Trade Center site. In the collapse of the building, it escaped any kind of significant damage, but was in the immediate kind of quarantine zone. Following the collapse, the clergy at the site, the organization and the church members, opened the doors to St. Paul's as a kind of a site of respite and refuge for the recovery workers going to Ground Zero and eventually became a very significant part of the respite operation. You had chiropractors and doctors and mental health professionals all descending on the church to offer their services. It was a quiet place where some of the pews were removed and beds were placed in so recovery workers come in, they could get a hot meal, they could have a rest, they just a few minutes of quiet from the din and the kind of chaotic nature of the site and what they were experiencing there. The pew itself is just a traditional wooden pew and had been painted white and it's pretty badly scratched and marred on its back. And this was because of the tool belts that these recovery workers were wearing. And then as they sat down for a moment of rest, it would scratch the paint. When the church underwent a renovation several years ago, the decision was made not to refinish the pews, but to remove them and preserve them and make them available to museums and historic sites. So the museum collected two of these pews to interpret and preserve the legacy of what occurred at the church. So this is just one of the two pews but it again is a very visually impactful testament to what was going on at the site. The response case itself is one that rotates and changes periodically, because it allows us to really interpret the broad scope of the response. And as we move further from the event, we are beginning to start considering how we need to reevaluate what the term response itself would mean. Does it necessarily mean the local immediate response? Or should we begin looking at the 20-year evolution of so much of the change that has occurred in New York and in America since then.
Levulis: And to sort of cap off the exhibit here are some stories about survivors. Those who were at the World Trade Center site, but who lived to tell about it. That's a pretty unique decision for a museum to make in regards to this exhibit, as you mentioned, it's a memorial to those who did perish. What do the stories of the survivors bring to this exhibit?
Noble: With the survivor story we wanted to highlight the fact that while the events of 9/11 were a tragic loss of nearly 3,000 Americans, the evacuation of the World Trade Center was also the most successful emergency evacuation in American history where tens of thousands of people were safely brought out of the buildings and were saved by the work of all the first responders, police, port authority and fire and others who ran into the buildings and others who made decisions to halt or order subways and PATH trains to go through the stations rather than offloading at the site. And so we wanted to highlight the fact that we also need to recognize the heroism and the fact that so many people were safely evacuated from the area prior to the collapse of the buildings. And this survivor wall is one of our rotating spaces and will be updated and changed for the upcoming 20th anniversary, to feature the story of the photographs of New York City photographer Kristin Arts, who had in the weeks before 9/11, taken photos of commuters at the World Trade Center. And so will be interspersing her photos with objects of commuting that were recovered from the World Trade Center site.
Levulis: So looking at 9/11 from a historical perspective and how it's been documented in many different ways. Do you think that the event as a whole changed the way that historians look at events such as this and how they go about telling the story, preserving the story and adjusting the tale if need be?
Noble: Yeah, I think that museum professionals and historians traditionally, we’re very comfortable and confident in collecting and interpreting things that happened 50, 100, 200 years ago. With September 11, at least here at the State Museum in Albany, this occurrence had happened earlier with the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s, but this was really our first experience with being confronted with a very clearly historic event that needed to be documented but without necessarily the benefit of hindsight so that we could know what was important. So the curators were really tasked with a very difficult kind of task of making kind of split-second decisions on what was saved, what wasn't saved. And oftentimes erring on the side of if they weren't sure, then they've saved it because many of them felt that we needed that kind of benefit of several years of historical development in order to better understand what was significant. So the museum collection, only a small portion of which is on display here, numbers several thousand pieces from the World Trade Center in the immediate aftermath. And as we've kind of gone through the last 20 years, we've continued to learn more to reevaluate how we have interpreted portions of the event. But also just learning facts, and the significance of trying to make sure that we become more aware and more inclusive of the stories that need to be told. So this exhibit in this gallery, it's an ever evolving and ever kind of growing and, and changing. And that's why the flexibility of many of the cases and the displays to be changed and to be updated is really critical for us to be able to incorporate the most recent scholarship and our best understandings as they change. Because things that happened and as we were trying to gather information in the midst of the event, things were either written down wrong, or were just misunderstood or weren't known at the time. It's a constant process of trying to, to update and identify and make sure that we're telling the most accurate story possible.