Malleable Memories and an Evolving History: Preserving the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s Collection
A distinguishing feature of many objects in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s collection is that they preserve truths about the lives of the people they intersected with. They also provide an entry point for understanding the grief, discontinuity, and eventual hope that ensued after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Objects vary widely in medium and inherent condition and include evidence of the atrocity, memorial and tribute items, artworks, and historical records, documenting a day that changed the world. Some represent the culmination of a rapid-response collecting initiative that began within days of the event. In New York City, this enterprise preserved examples of the community response and objects recovered from the Ground Zero disaster site. These efforts were made even though there was no way of knowing, at that point, exactly what role these artifacts would play in the remembrance of this history.
Preserving artifacts in the collection is complicated. Often there are no ideal aesthetics to strive for. To the contrary, physical wear, dust, and visible evidence of trauma can add, rather than detract, from an object’s historical and emotional resonance. Determining what aspects of an object are significant, and what, if anything, warrants intervention, requires careful study, as any alteration can directly shape a still evolving history. Engaging with stakeholders outside the museum realm who are fluent with the details of this fateful event and those it claimed or scarred is essential. But even then, the process is imperfect. Memories of traumatic events can be fallible. And our interpretation of things can change.
Highlighting illustrative examples, this talk will consider how the Museum’s preservation strategies attempt to maintain the authenticity and humanity of objects that illustrate a very complex history.