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Smithsonian Exhibit Involves Visitors In 9/11 Remembrance

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Tools used by iron worker, James Connor to remove debris at the World Trade Center between September 2001 and January 2002.
Hugh Talman
Tools used by iron worker, James Connor to remove debris at the World Trade Center between September 2001 and January 2002.

In 2002, Congress designated the Smithsonian the official repository of 9/11 materials. Since then, the museum has collected more than 300 objects and 1,000 images documenting the attacks and their aftermath in an exhibit now open through Sunday entitled, "Remembrance and Reflection."

David Allison is the Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He says that for the ten year anniversary, the museum has chosen mostly tiny, often misshapen objects, displayed alongside a series of photographs that reflects personal narratives of this historic event.

"We feel that for most people, September 11 was only a media event," Allison says. "For the millions of people across America, most of what they ever saw about Sept. 11 was what they saw on television."

The objects sit on small tables with no glass or cases. They have just simple square notecards identifying the objects. The room is intimate and surprisingly small. The atmosphere feels less like a museum exhibit and more like a friend's living room. The Smithsonian has worked for years to acquired, document and understand out how these objects affect our national memory.

Susan Evans of the museum's Public Programs Department. She says museums often preserve and display the most pristine example, or best representation of a collection.

"A lot of the objects are things that you look at and think 'why is this even on display?'" notes Evans. "It's the story behind those objects that we really want people to have a chance to interact with. We have a video camera that was used to film the actual planes hitting the towers. You don't always think about that when you watch the video -- there was actually a camera that somebody was holding and a man's hand was on the camera as he had the experience of seeing the planes hit the towers on September 11."

Museums officials, including Evans, hope the exhibition will trigger visitors' personal memories and spark new conversations.

"How has ten years changed how people react to September 11?" asks Evans. "A lot of the reason we are doing the display in the way we are is to find out an answer to that question, because we don't know either."

The museum will ask visitors to fill out comment cards responding to questions such as, 'How did you witness history on September 11?' The museum has already collected more than 15,000 comment cards from previous 9/11 exhibitions.

Staff members plan to use such comments to examine how response evolve over time. Curators hope their work helps a nation remember the small and monumental ways that we have changed as a nation since Sept. 11, 2001.

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