For just one short week, the National Museum of American History hosted a powerful temporary exhibit, "September 11: Remembrance and Reflection." I went on the final day, the 10-year anniversary on September 11, 2010. Many others waited until the last day too: the waiting line was almost an hour long. But the wait was worth it.
Once we got into the exhibit area, we found displays arranged on four skirted tables, like the kind you'd see at a conference display hall. The curtained booths and the tablecloths were all in a neutral gray. Staff stood behind each table to answer questions, and there were none of the usual barriers museum goers have come to expect: no plexiglass or vitrines between us and the objects. Most were simply laid out on the tables, with minimal labels. On the edge of each table were boxes of Kleenex, in case visitors felt overwhelmed.
The artifacts ranged from the mundane (plastic airport check-in bins) to the strange (metal fragments from the wreckage of planes, painted in bright colors, with violently ragged edges). It was that combination of the daily and the rare that struck me most powerfully.
On the Pennsylvania table, I saw parts of seatbelts, an airplane strut, a window shade, a gauge (the "vertical speed indicator" according to the label). The most moving item on that table was a small leather logbook, damaged on one side, that once belonged to flight attendant Lorraine Bay, "who carefully recorded every flight she ever worked." It was donated by her husband Erich.
The Transportation Security Administration table had a training dummy, handcuffs, badge, hand-held metal detector, and a basket of "surrendered items" taken by TSA screeners at airports: knives, scissors, screwdrivers, even a set of shiny brass knuckles.
The Pentagon table had an eerie pile of commemorative medallions fused together from the fire, a dog collar from Vito, a bomb-screening dog, and a loop of metal that the label identified as the coiled reinforcement bar from a concrete column. To my eyes, it looked oddly human, like a rib cage.
The New York table was the most moving of all. Items included Lisa Lefler's black cloth briefcase, still covered in a white residue, a structural bracket rusted red and twisted on one end, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's cell phone. There was the large door from a NY Fire Department Truck, intact at the bottom, but with the window completely crushed. And strangest of all, a small nondescript metal handle, which a label explained once was used by a window washer, Jan Demczur, to hold his squeegee. He used the handle "to hack through drywall between floors, freeing himself and five others from a North Tower elevator." They all escaped from the 50th floor and survived.
This was my second exhibit relating to 9/11 in this space. I was at the museum also in November 2005, when they displayed a huge flag. That one took me by surprise: I had not gone to the museum specifically to see it. This was the very same flag that had hung from the west side of the Pentagon after the building was struck by a plane. There were places where you could still see black spots, dirt or soot.
Both exhibits gained their power from the objects themselves. They were interpreted minimally, allowing the artifacts to speak their own stories. By their very lack of commentary, I found myself filling in the emotional content implied by each. These were not mute things. They were here for a purpose: to break my heart.