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Stark reminders: artifacts from Ground Zero memorials.

Painful to Remember

The New York State Museum doesn’t customarily call in a psychologist to help its staff prepare for the opening of a new exhibit. But then, the museum also doesn’t usually open an exhibit drawn from a burial ground so fresh that body parts were still being exhumed as the curators walked through the site.

Such were the dilemmas faced by the museum as it planned its recently completed permanent exhibit on the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

These dilemmas were, as the museum’s staff quickly learned, many of the same issues other museums struggled with as they debated the best way to address the Sept. 11 attacks. The whole topic was too raw, too soon, too sad and sometimes too sickening, but also too pressing to be ignored.

“Some of our staff didn’t want to be assigned to work here,” said Cliff Siegfried, the state museum’s director.

As it turned out, the SUNY psychologist who was brought in to help prepare the staff on handling emotional reactions by the public ended up helping some staff members with their own reactions to the artifacts, which ranged from the everyday—such as fragments of computer circuit boards—to the extraordinary, such as the still-buckled seatbelt strap from one of the jets that slammed into the Trade Center.

Phase I of the state museum’s exhibit, focusing on the rescue effort in the first hours and days after the towers collapsed, opened last September to national and even international attention, highlighted by the installation of a burned and crushed New York City fire engine that had been recovered from the rubble.

Phase II focuses on the city’s response to the attack and the nearly year long search for human remains and personal effects in the mountain of rubble. It opened far more quietly on Feb. 1.

Connecting the two parts is what museum officials say was more than a year’s worth of soul-searching on how to balance the display of such disturbing objects against the fear of appearing irreverent, crass or overly commercial. Because although museums are in the business of being informative, thought-provoking and educational, they are also highly competitive organizations that aim to put together crowd-pleasing shows.

“The temptation, of course, with this is if you’re not careful, you come across as exploiting this to boost attendance,” Siegfried said.

But before the museum could get to the point of worrying about appearances, the staff had to clear several substantial hurdles.

It took some doing to convince the law enforcement officials running the Fresh Kills site that museum officials should be allowed to preserve and eventually display hundreds of objects that workers had combed out of the rubble. As museum officials are quick to note, they did not collect any items that could be identified as belonging to a particular person. Hence, there are no driver’s licenses or name plates from desks in the exhibit. Personal objects such as photographs and jewelry were retained by police and returned to survivors or victim’s families when possible. The exhibit does contain more impersonal objects, such as dozens of anonymous keys.

Museum officials started on the collection effort in October 2001, speaking to supervisors at the Fresh Kills site.

“Initially, when we went to begin talking to them, there was a lot of resistance,” Siegfried said. “This was law enforcement, and a crime scene, and now somebody comes and says, ‘We want part of the evidence.’ ”

Other exhibition sites faced their own difficulties. The New Jersey Historical Society in Newark was a mere eight miles from the World Trade Center, close enough in some parts of the city to see the smoke from the towers’ collapse. The historical society—which routinely caters to school field trips—planned an exhibit to coincide with the first anniversary of the attacks, but the opening didn’t quite work out as expected.

“It was not an exhibition teachers wanted to take their kids to,” said Sally Yerkovich, the historical society’s president and chief executive officer. “They had dealt with it all last year, and they didn’t want to do it anymore. The teachers were very adamant in letting us know they did not want to go through this. And they thought it was time for the kids to start dealing with other stuff.”

The exhibit remained open for three months, but local schools never reacted more positively to it.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History polled visitors to the museum for ideas on how to set up its Sept. 11 exhibit. The public emphatically did not want to see images of the hijackers who commandeered the jets used in the attacks, said Kathleen Kendrick, co-curator of the exhibit. In the end, the American History museum opened a temporary exhibit on Sept. 11, 2002 that attempted to tell what happened but did not attempt to put it into historical context.

“As historians, we are used to having a certain distance from a topic,” Kendrick said. “With Sept. 11, there was no distance. The story was still unfolding. It wasn’t history yet.”

The New York State Museum did finally get permission to retrieve artifacts from Fresh Kills, where searchers were routinely raking bits of bodies out of the pulverized concrete, glass and metal. One of the Fresh Kills gatekeepers was FBI Special Agent Richard Marx, an evidence specialist and a co-supervisor of the whole operation there.

“It’s really not our job to save things for museums,” said Marx, who was on special assignment at Fresh Kills from September 12, 2001, to last August. “Crime scenes are usually very closed-off sites, but this was obviously a very different crime scene. They really had to gain our trust. For these people to come and say, ‘We want to collect this and this and this,’—we wanted to make sure it was being collected for the right reasons.”

Translation: Even though the museum people seemed respectful, sincere and dedicated, the cops running the Fresh Kills site had a recurring nightmare about seeing World Trade Center objects they had just dug out of the rubble ending up on eBay.

Nothing of the sort happened, and Marx—who attended the opening of Phase II earlier this month—was both moved and impressed. Seeing the exhibit evoked powerful memories of the year’s work at Fresh Kills, he said.

“It is a little unusual to see things we dealt with on a daily basis, so fresh in our memory,” he said. “You’re almost numb, you’re feeling so many different emotions. You don’t know what you’re feeling. It’s a part of my life now. And I’ll be friends with a lot of those people for a very long time.”

—Darryl McGrath

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