Collection Highlight: Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Visitor Responses on the Tenth Anniversary in 2011

“We will always Remember you. To All the heroes who tried to save their selves on flight 93 American Airlines. To All the fallen Heroes.” A visitor sketched this while reflecting on the events of September 11.
“We will always Remember you. To All the heroes who tried to save their selves on flight 93 American Airlines. To All the fallen Heroes.”
A visitor sketched this while reflecting on the events of September 11.

Visitors to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s exhibit September 11: Bearing Witness to History on the tenth anniversary of September 11 were given a unique object-oriented experience. The exhibit featured items the museum has chosen to preserve in perpetuity laid out on tables, with short labels, and no glass cases. Visitors were encouraged to reflect upon personal memories and to consider the the ways in which September 11 has changed their lives. Visitors were invited to become part of the collection by telling their stories. Comment cards included questions regarding demographic information, such as age, place of residence, and gender, and where they heard about the exhibit. Visitors were invited to respond to one of the following prompts:

  • “How did you witness history on September 11, 2011? Tell us your story. Feel free to write or sketch.”
  • “How was your life changed because of September 11, 2001?”

Visitor responses to those questions are preserved in the September 11 Digital Archive’s collection Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Visitor Responses on the Tenth Anniversary in 2011. Exhibit visitors came not only from the United States but also countries across the globe, including South Africa, and ranged widely in age, such as this respondent, who was only three months old when the attacks occurred. Some visitors to the exhibit chose to sketch, such as one individual who drew a cell phone with no service, or this nine-year-old, who drew the two towers.

Many visitors reflected on their sensory experiences of September 11. This visitor landed at Newark Airport at 8:45 in the morning and “noticed smoke coming out of the WTC.” By the time she left the airport, the second plane had hit, and she pulled over in her car and “watched, horrified. Life has never again been quite the same.” Another respondent saw the second tower burning and its collapse, which she described as the building coming “apart like someone had unzipped it down the middle.” While not witnessing the event in person, this individual watched television coverage and “tried to rationalize it away as a wierd [sic] movie or ‘what if documentary.’ Then it hit me that what I was watching was actually happening.” Other respondents remembered the smell. One visitor left his beret in his office at the Pentagon after evacuating, and said that he “can still smell smoke and jet fuel on the beret.” Another individual noted that he continues to be haunted by the unique, terrible, and acrid smell. Other visitors reflected upon the absence of sound in the hours and days following the attacks. A native to Washington, DC, one respondent found the silence that followed a “stunning change” because she was so used to hearing the sounds of planes flying overhead, and found the silence comforting because it meant no more planes could attack American targets. This visitor also remembered the quiet in the days after the attacks, writing that “everything was still.”

Some respondents reflected on their work, volunteer efforts, and the ways in which they serve others. One visitor wrote that her husband, a servicemember in the Army, has been sent to Iraq twice, while another was “honored to work at TSA.” Justin said that he “didn’t have much of a sense of patriotism” prior to September 11, but after the attacks he he was motivated to “help my country and to prevent future occurences [sic] such as this…I enlisted in the Navy.” Melissa Cummings’ father boarded a flight the morning of September 11, shortly before Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon. She now volunteers at her local fire and rescue service. Visitors to the exhibit included first responders, such as Chaplain Glenn George, who worked for two weeks at Ground Zero, and this individual, who was in an Army mortuary affairs unit and worked 12 to 14 hour shifts at night during the recovery operations at the Pentagon. One respondent’s brother, Ray, was part of FDNY Engine 28 and barely made it out of the North Tower. Ray died ten years later after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which his sister believes is related to his work at Ground Zero.

Exhibit visitors discussed the ways in which September 11 affected them emotionally. Megan Hornbeek wrote that every time she flies she wonders “if I would have the courage to take my plane down to prevent additional losses.” This visitor said that her daughter felt safer after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Other visitors expressed feelings of hope, with Edward Lopez writing, “The phoenix will rise from the ashes. Always will.” Other visitors were more cautious, including this individual, who said that “we still must learn to forgive. Not forget, but forgive. I still haven’t fully forgiven yet.” Some individuals mentioned an overwhelming feeling of unity with other Americans and even the world. One visitor felt that after September 11 “the whole country became an American. Even citizens of other countries became American.” Visitors also documented their feelings of patriotism, including this respondent, who “became and remain[s] fiercely patriotic.” Many visitors reflected and remembered friends and family who died on September 11, such as this individual whose friends died in the Pentagon, and this respondent whose friends died on American Airlines Flight 77.

Visitors to the exhibit reflected on the ways in which they were personally affected by Islamophobic sentiment following September 11. One individual wrote “a classmate…said, ‘Your people are responsible for this.’ Since that day, being Afghan American has taken on new meaning and new importance in my life.” Another visitor said the events of September 11 “made it more difficult for my husband and I to become lawful residents [of the United States]” and began to doubt whether they wanted to remain in the country. They chose to stay. Her husband joined the Army and she volunteers for the Army Community Services.

Other visitors cautioned against being fearful and intolerant. One individual urged people to “not misdirect anger…to a religious group but to the criminals.” “I will not raise my girls to be a part of the hate in the world,” wrote anotherTherese Quinn organized interfaith memorials a week after the attacks after witnessing Muslim women in her community being harassed and threatened. This respondent, who was in college at the time of the attacks, saw Middle Eastern women who lived on her dormitory floor harassed following September 11, and sends “love to all who are still afraid.” Another visitor now tries harder to “see the good/best in people” after feeling appalled at the treatment of Middle Easterners following September 11. Captain Steve Bowen of the Marine Corps wrote: “Let us honor our dead, bind up our wounds and perhaps look to solve our problems through frank discussion and open minds.”

This collection of over 1,300 items is nested under Smithsonian National Museum of American History Collections and would be of interest to people studying memory, historical trauma, patriotic sentiment, Islamophobia in America, and post-September 11 America more generally.

Collection Highlight: Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center Interviews

Image of Beirut from MEMEAC website
Image of Beirut from MEMEAC website

The Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) Interviews is a collection of seventy-one transcribed oral history interviews conducted between June 2002 and June 2003 at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. This collection reveals how Middle Easterners and those of Middle Eastern descent coped and dealt with the backlash aimed at the immigrant community, particularly the Middle Eastern community, in the post-9/11 world.

Twenty-five men and forty-three women were interviewed for the collection. Many were young, as the average age of the interviewees was twenty-nine. Each interviewee was asked a specific set of questions, beginning with their background information. Many respondents self-identified as Pakistani, Arab-American, Indian, Afghani, Bengali, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Iranian-American, or Syrian. Most respondents stated their religious affiliation was Muslim, although others identified themselves as Catholics, Hindus, Druids, and atheists. After going through the background information, the interviewer asked the respondents about their experience on 9/11, including where they were when the attacks happened, how they reacted, and how they felt when the terrorists were identified as Muslim. Respondents were then questioned as to whether their feelings towards the United States had changed, if they had experienced variations in their levels of political awareness since 9/11, and if they feel a sense of belonging in the United States. Many respondents felt that there was a change in the treatment of Middle Easterners after the attacks, and some respondents personally experienced backlash.

Interviewees were also asked if they felt that Middle Eastern organizations supported them by adequately addressing the changing attitudes towards the Middle Eastern community in the US after 9/11, and if they had joined any of those organizations. The interviewer asked each respondent how they think members of their communities can work to improve relations between various ethnic and religious groups, and many thought that education, dialogue, and outreach would be helpful. One of the final questions the interviewees were asked was how the United States can resolve the problem of terrorism directed against it, and some of the responses included: having the federal government promote, create, and maintain isolationist foreign policies; re-assesing America’s policies concerning the Middle East, especially those regarding Israel and Palestine; increasing America’s awareness of problems facing the global community; and gaining an understanding of how American policies are perceived around the world.

Nested within the Organizations collection, the MEMEAC interviews would be of interest to those studying the experiences of the ethnic Middle Eastern community in the early twenty-first century; the work of Middle Eastern organizations and Middle Easterners’ perceptions of those organizations; and profiling at airports in the wake of increased security measures. The Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center website provides insight into the Center’s mission, goals, resources, scholastic programs, and more.

Collection Highlight: Sonic Memorial Project

Radio Row in the 1920s
Radio Row in the 1920s

The Sonic Memorial Project is a collection of over nine hundred items that describe the history of the World Trade Centers (WTC) and surrounding neighborhood through archival audio, radio broadcasts, interviews, ambient sounds, voicemails, and music. Led by National Public Radio’s Lost and Found Sound, the Sonic Memorial Project was a collaboration of radio and new media producers, artists, historians, and people from around the world.

The items in this collection vividly illustrate the history of the physical space the WTC inhabited. The area that later housed the WTC was first known as Radio Row when City Radio opened in 1921, and grew to encompass six blocks of downtown Manhattan. Irving Simon, a Radio Row store owner, describes the variety of objects available for sale in the area, which became the largest place in the world known for selling radios and electronic equipment. In 1966, the stores were bulldozed to make way for the WTC. Mohawk ironworkers were hired to construct the towers and Peter Stacey and Kyle Beauvais describe the dangers of the job. In order to help the public understand the plans for the WTC, construction guides were posted at the site to answer questions and give tours. The guides discuss what an average workday was like as well as the meaning of their work in multiple interviews.

In 1971 construction on both towers was complete. Voicemails and interviews within the Sonic Memorial Project describe how the WTC became a site of engagements and marriages. Dr. Elizabeth Grill describes her proposal at the Windows on the World, a restaurant located on the top two floors of the North Tower. In 1996, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council allowed empty offices to be used as artist studios, and the artist-in-residence program attracted many artists to the WTC. Don Bracken was one of those artists, and describes his time working in his studio.

In addition to telling stories of love and art at the WTC, the Sonic Memorial Project documents the events of September 11, 2001. The Project includes radio transmissions from New York’s Fire and Police Departments, as well as accounts of the day. Robert Snyder recalls his morning commute and the “confetti” that confronted him when he got off the PATH train at Broadway. Ken Van Auken, an employee at the WTC, left a voicemail for his wife after the plane crashed into one of the towers. The Project also includes recollections of the aftermath of 9/11 and the various ways people dealt with the tragedy. Marc Wilson wrote a prose poem based on slips of paper he found at Ground Zero. Items in the collection also discuss the Fresh Kills landfill, which was a sorting place for one-third of the rubble from Ground Zero. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at the 2008 closing ceremony.

Located within the Audio Collection, the Sonic Memorial Project would be useful for anyone interested in the history of the physical space and the WTC itself, and those interested in the sounds of the WTC and surrounding neighborhood. The original Sonic Memorial Project website has more information about the project and the World Trade Center website provides a comprehensive history of the WTC.

Collection Highlight: Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings

pleaseremoveyourshoesAfter the events of September 11, airport security came under severe scrutiny. Investigations launched with the purpose of determining how terrorists could have passed through security checkpoints. As a result of investigations and the passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created and became responsible for the screening of airline passengers.

The newly-added Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings collection provides insight into passenger safety prior to and on September 11, 2001 in the form of reports, guides, testimonies of various Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees and airport workers, meeting minutes, memos, transcripts, and affidavits. The testimonies of James Miller, Jr., Theresa Spagnuolo, and Stephen J. Wallace detail the activities of Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower. Before the attack, Atta and another man were seen taking videos, pictures, and notes of security checkpoints throughout Logan Airport. The documents also detail standard operating procedures for pre-9/11 security at airports as well as at Massachusetts Port Authority. Please Remove Your Shoes is a documentary that discusses the failure of the FAA and the TSA to adequately protect airline passengers. This collection reveals the flaws within the security systems at airports both prior to, during, and after the events of September 11.

These documents are a part of the September 11 Digital Archive Collected Reports, which are within the Online User Contributions to September 11 Digital Archive Project. Brian Sullivan, a retired FAA agent, contributed these documents and Please Remove Your Shoes. This collection of documents would be of interest to anyone conducting research into the infrastructure of airport security pre-9/11, the creation of the TSA, and 9/11 litigation and investigations.