The nation's attic makes room for mementos of the disastrous day
By Dan Gilgoff
he first entry in nikki stern's diary isn't your average Smithsonian artifact. Dated Sept. 11, 2001, that opening passage finds her standing in the local Pathmark, egg carton in hand, when a clerk runs down the aisle yelling that the World Trade Center has been hit by a plane. "I was . . . thinking that 18 was too many eggs for just the two of us," the diary reads. "But . . . I'd bake cookieshe loved my chocolate-chip cookiesand we'd have omelets on the weekend."
The "we" refers to Stern and her husband, Jim Potorti , who worked on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. He never returned to their Princeton, N.J., townhome. But in his absence, Nikki, 52, says she found a new best friend in her journal, which has since swelled to 150 single-spaced pages on a home computer.
Early this summer, Stern recited six passages from that diary for a recording that will be part of "September 11: Bearing Witness to History," an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington. The exhibit opens on September 11 and will run through Jan. 11, 2003. Smithsonian curators hope stories like Stern's will make "Bearing Witness" feel intensely personalan approach they might ordinarily reject. "We normally look at an event's causality, its consequences, and how it fits into the big picture of American history," says Kathleen Kendrick, cocurator for the show. "But we couldn't treat this the same way because we don't yet have the necessary distance."
Instead, the museum is framing the exhibit as a national depository of individual 9/11 testimonials, told through objects like window washer Jan Demczur's squeegee, which he used to pry open a smoke-filled twin towers elevator and break through a plasterboard wall, saving himself and five others. A half-dozen Smithsonian curators have met with survivors, victims' families, rescue workers, and a host of government agenciesand visited locales like Staten Island's Fresh Kills Landfillto recover the remains of a very dark day, an effort that began just two days after the attacks. "We were worried that people might see the museum's collection effort as self-serving in a time of crisis," says James Gardner, who coordinated the collecting curators. "But we knew there was a very narrow window before objects would start going to the landfill."
Curators picked up seemingly mundane objects like a smashed computer and a charred eagle flagpole finial from the Pentagon that were instantly transformed into historical relics. They purposefully avoided other items, like victims' burned clothing, which felt morbid, but the exhibit does feature objects touched by September 11's victims, including a smashed camera and the final photographs of Bill Biggart, a freelance photographer killed when he ran to the World Trade Center site to shoot pictures. Biggart's last photo is marked 10:28just before the north tower collapsed. "Biggart's things are the most important I've brought to the collection in my 12 years here," says Michelle Delaney, a photo collection curator who met this winter with Biggart's widow to arrange the loan of the camera and pictures. "They show a photojournalist photographing until the last possible moment, even as everyone else was running away."
The most disturbing pictures in Delaney's 9/11 portfolioincluding shots of bodies falling from the twin towerswon't be included in the commemorative exhibit, though some will enter the Smithsonian's permanent collection. Curators say those photos will supply a vital part of the historical record but probably wouldn't be well received by a public still on the mend. It's not the first time the mu- seum has collected taboo items only for possible future use. "When Lincoln was assassinated, the Smithsonian was given the hat he was wearing at the time, but it was deemed ghoulish and hidden away," says Peter Liebhold, a collecting curator for the September 11 exhibit. "Now, it's one of the museum's most sacred objects."
The question of where to draw the line has blurred even in the past few months. In February, U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson gave the museum the telephone on which he spoke with his wife, Barbara, while she was on board the American Airlines flight that would hit the Pentagon. Curators initially viewed it as too harrowing an item for immediate display, but a March survey of about 80 museum visitors revealed that they wanted exposure to such emotionally charged articles. "The phone was one of the objects we really had to grow into before putting it on display," says Marilyn Zoidis, the exhibit's lead curator. "There was a lot of internal wrestling."
What emerges from that wrestling is an exhibit that attempts to soothe visitors even as it presents them with a melange of distressing artifacts. In an attempt to prevent visualand emotionaloverload, "Bearing Witness" presents only around 50 objects; the museum's show on the American presidency, by contrast, displays 900 items. And the final segment of "Bearing Witness"traditionally a venue for speculating on future developmentsfeatures blank walls instead. "An exhibit usually has a beginning, middle, and end, with closing thoughts that bring it all together," says Delaney. "But right now, there is no conclusionwe don't know what's going to happen next."