NEW YORK -- As the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches, some Americans question how long these yearly observances should continue. But those in charge of the largest cultural repository of artifacts and images from that bloody day have no doubt about the answer: forever.
"We're a historical society. It's our duty and our responsibility not only to house these archives, but it's also our responsibility to exhibit history" and keep it alive, said Marilyn Kushner, co-curator of the New York Historical Society's new Here is New York: Remembering 9/11 exhibit.
Running from Tuesday through Dec. 31, the exhibit is the 17th special exhibition concerning the events of Sept. 11 that the society has presented since October 2001.
And it surely will not be the last, said Kushner, who sees it as part of the society's mission to help people, particularly the New Yorkers who lived through the attacks and their aftermath, to "remember and revisit and re-evaluate every year."
In fact, six years inevitably have altered the way people view the event. Memories reawakened by the new exhibit may be no less painful, but they are far less raw. Until recently, when people saw objects and images connected to the attacks, "it wasn't processed memory yet," said Kushner, head of the society's department of prints, photographs and architectural collections.
"It's not only a question of how things have changed but how much more we have in our memories," said Stephen Edidin, curator of American and European art, who co-curated the exhibit with Kushner. "Now, all of that is inside you."
Comprising 10 artifacts, 1,500 photographs and six video clips of New Yorkers recalling the events of that day, the exhibit draws somewhat on that internalization of the event and reflects how things have and have not changed since then.
Remnants tell story
What seems at first glance to be an ultra-modern chandelier, composed of long, twisted strips of white plastic, turns out to be the mangled remains of a Venetian blind. Blasted into the boughs of a tree in the churchyard of St. Paul's Chapel, across the street from the World Trade Center, it was retrieved by Kenneth Jackson, a vestryman at the chapel and the then-president of the historical society.
"I felt then, and I do now, that a little twisted Venetian blind could tell the horror of that day just as well as could a ton of twisted structural steel," said Jackson, in comments accompanying the artifact.
But structural steel is there as well, including an I-beam fragment from the twin towers and an aluminum piece of the distinctive, trident motif that marked the facades of the towers. Poised on new mounts fashioned for this exhibit, they too initially appear more like modern sculptures than morbid reminders of the destruction of two iconic buildings.
By spearheading the drive to immediately collect and preserve artifacts from Ground Zero, Jackson also changed the way curators will approach such events, Edidin said. In the past, more traditional curators might have waited "to let the dust settle, so to speak," Ferber said, but Jackson realized the need to move swiftly because "everything was important."
As a result, the society houses hundreds of Sept. 11 artifacts, 500 video clips of New Yorkers describing that day and more than 6,000 photographs taken of the attacks and their aftermath.
Most of those images came to the society from Here is New York, A Democracy of Photographs, a storefront exhibition on Prince Street that solicited and presented photographs taken by New Yorkers in the days after the attacks. That exhibit, which presented the prints against stark white walls and hung from wire cables with binder clips, ran from Sept. 25, 2001, until fall 2002.
For the first time since, copies of 1,500 of those photos are exhibited exactly as they were on Prince Street. Two large, white rooms are strung with row after row of photos suspended from wires by black binder clips. More photographs hang from wires overhead. The first impression is of an art installation, the colors vivid against the walls.
But it is not art, said Kushner . "This is itself an artifact that tells us how New Yorkers reacted to 9/11, that they had a need to take these images."
'You have to move on'
Of the hundreds of artifacts in the society's collection, Edidin carefully chose 10 objects for the exhibit.
"When you think about it, they do tell a story, from the moment of impact, to the rescuers to the buildings coming down and the aftermath," he said.
JeanAnn Morgan, a health care communications consultant then living in Greenwich Village, shot three of the photos in the exhibit and appears in one of the six video clips it presents. Seeing a preview of the exhibit, she said, "those images, on one hand, they're absolutely horrible and upsetting. On the other, there is a hopefulness and healing that comes across."
"You have to evolve, you have to move on, but you can't forget," said Morgan, 39, whose daughter will celebrate her first birthday on Sept. 12. "Sept. 11 is always going to be a day for us of solemnness. But Sept. 12 for us will always be a day of rebirth."
Lisa Anderson writes for the Chicago Tribune.