How Artifacts Changed The Telling Of Sept. 11 Attacks

Sep 11, 2014

Before the fires were extinguished or the cleanups began, archivists from the Smithsonian museums had already started collecting artifacts from the sites of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Thirteen years later, Alima Bucciantini, an assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University, wants to know what kind of impact the immediate exhibition of these objects had on the telling of the story of 9/11.

“There was no time to process what had happened,” she said. “So they collected objects before we even knew what was important. And this is really unique in the museum world.”

Archivists were dispatched to New York, Virginia and Shanksville, Pa. as early as Oct. 6, 2001 and picked up what they could, leading to some ethical issues—do you collect personal items or return them to the families who lost loved ones?

“Once they had these objects,” Bucciantini said, “they had to then trace them … and a lot of these objects didn’t end up in the permanent collection.”

Many items were returned to the families, while others were loaned to the museum.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History unveiled its temporary 9/11 exhibit one year after the attacks, and according to Bucciantini, the display was in such demand that it toured across the country.

“9/11 was a really unique moment in time and people interacted with it with material objects in a way that we hadn’t before,” she said.

Immediately following the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Bucciantini said the public brought their own objects to the site to create “temporary shrines,” and the Smithsonian was faced with another decision: Do you leave them or take them?

“In Pennsylvania, we’re close to things that happened physically — geographically,” she said. “But even people that aren’t close seem to be close to the story of it and they want to be close to the objects as well.”

According to Bucciantini, the artifacts have sparked public interest and turned the events of 9/11 into an “American boogeyman story.”

“It becomes a ritual,” she said. “It makes it safe. It takes it out of the realm of something that is likely to actually threaten you and makes it, kind of, in the safe past. [It’s] a story that we tell each other, a tradition, rather than something that is actually part of the scary present.”