CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

September 11: Bearing Witness to History

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, DC. Lead Curator: Marilyn Zoidis; Collecting Curators: William Yeingst, Peter Liebhold, and David Shayt

September 11, 2002-July 6, 2003


Business professor and author Peter F. Drucker stated that "in a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology…. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition." Our current human condition is a country emerging from war, seeking economic stability, and forging a new position in the global marketplace. However, for most Americans September is no longer the month of passing fancy from summer to fall, from vacation to school; this month has become a moment in time when America experienced terror not seen since Pearl Harbor.

The simultaneous events at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are addressed through the National Museum of American History's exhibit September 11: Bearing Witness to History. Within months of that fateful day, museum curators sought to document the event through artifacts. This ongoing collection effort is sampled in September 11. The installation contains photographs, artifacts, objects, a testimony book, and a video.

Anyone who has visited Smithsonian museums during the height of tourist season knows the cacophonous din of the crowds. At this exhibit, in high contrast, the atmosphere is reverential and subdued.

The entrance is filled with photographs taken by professionals and amateurs who capture the horror and devastation of the attacks. The photographs provide a visceral, firsthand depiction of the moment with images of collapsing buildings, soot-covered survivors, and stunned and teary-eyed onlookers. In the object gallery, approximately 50 items, representing the three crash sites, are used to document the stories of the local impact as well as the national response and recovery effort.

All of the items provide commentary on the horrible events of September 11, but three items in particular communicate the depth of human determination, resilience, and memory. A squeegee owned by window washer Jan Demczur became a tool of liberation on September 11. Trapped on the 50th floor in an elevator at the World Trade Center, Mr. Demczur used the squeegee to cut holes through which he and five others crawled and escaped from the building just minutes before it collapsed. The second object is a scrapbook compiled by Michelle Guyton, an artist from Mobile, Alabama. A means to reflect, cope, and heal, this scrapbook incorporates historical and patriotic themes, as well as newspaper and magazine clippings.

The third object is a selection of postings from a memorial created by survivors and family members at the entrance to Bellevue Hospital in New York. This spontaneous human effort to locate missing loved ones and to memorialize those who had been lost began within days of the attacks as people posted makeshift fliers containing photographs and descriptions of "missing persons." Dubbed the "Wall of Prayers," it brought together people of all faiths who came to mourn and pray for the missing, the survivors, and the Nation.

September 11 includes a number of interactive elements. A short video produced by ABC News recounts the initial television news response. "Tell Us Your Story" encourages visitors to write their recollections about how September ıı affected them.

Finally, there is an Internet site that offers a virtual tour of the museum's collection of more than 140 September 11 artifacts and several interviews with curators ( The site is maintained in conjunction with The September 11 Digital Archive at George Mason University. The exhibit will remain permanently online with its visitors' guide, selected objects, links, and video and audio clips.

This exhibit evokes the strong emotions, reflections, and reminiscences about the September 11 attacks. It also provides useful information. By analyzing the written reflections left by museum visitors, scholars may add to our understanding of the human response to horrendous events. The exhibit may aid parents and educators in answering questions posed by children and students. By sharing stories, the public can continue to recover. The National Museum of American History, Behring Center, has done an excellent job in offering this exhibit for our contemplation and catharsis. This exhibit will begin touring the Nation in fall 2003.

Ida E. Jones
Howard University