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Curators raced to pick up — and preserve — pieces of the nation's pain | (KRT) Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, curators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., were compiling lists of objects they would need to document the historical record. Despite the horror of the day, despite the emotions and pain they were all feeling, they had a job to do. It would be the most challenging assignment any of them had ever faced.

Usually, in this line of work, there is the objectivity that comes from time and distance. Such was not the case in September 2001.

"We knew it was historic, but it wasn't history yet. It was all very fresh. We didn't know all the reasons, we didn't know the full impact - the story was still unfolding," said Smithsonian curator Kathleen Kendrick.

Nevertheless, the collecting teams recognized the necessity of immediate action. On the day after the attacks, remembers curator Peter Liebhold, "I came in to the office and started drawing up a list." The next day, a team of 30 to 40 people on the curatorial staff had been assembled, "and we sent a SWAT team to the various sights."

That SWAT team's efforts make up the traveling exhibit "September 11: Bearing Witness to History." The exhibit contains only 45 objects.

"We found the material culture of Sept. 11 was ephemeral," Liebhold said. "Things were being tossed out at an incredible rate. While we were moving quickly, much had already been destroyed."

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There was also competition for the few objects that remained; they were being acquired by investigative teams or collected by other groups for their own historical needs. There was little but a crater left after the crash of Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pa. The only objects to be collected were those left by mourners who came to the site.

To obtain personal objects from the other two sites, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Smithsonian decided not to approach any of the victims' families directly. Working through intermediaries allowed the families to gracefully decline, should they not want to part with an object.

"The challenge is to convince people to part with a loved item," said collecting curator David Shayt. But he admits that when the Smithsonian, the nation's museum, comes calling, there is often little resistance and an overwhelming sense of national duty to contribute. "The `S' word goes a long way," Shayt said.

Because storage facilities are limited and display space is at a premium, Shayt looks for items with multiple meanings. He illustrates his point by comparing something seemingly pedestrian with one of the museum's most famous items. "A lunchbox tells us so many things. It's about food and drink. It tells us about the workplace or school. The decoration defines the taste of the buyer or the interests of the child. While the Hope Diamond is just a diamond."

How he chooses lunchboxes comes from the gut. "There is close physical scrutiny, down on hands and knees, with or without gloves. I ask questions of the object itself, always listening for a voice to come out of it."

Also part of the exhibit is a file cabinet from the office of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop. It was the "only" identifiable piece of office equipment in the remains of the World Trade Center, Shayt said. He happened to be at the offices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey when the cabinet was brought in.

The chunk of steel was "no larger than a basketball," Shayt said. "The Port Authority police opened it with the Jaws of Life and it spilled $20 bills, receipts and coins." Shayt immediately asked for it. In the exhibit, that single piece of office equipment represents all of the offices in the twin towers.

The curators were faced with hard choices at every turn. "For the 9-11 collection, there was the issue of taste and appropriateness," Liebhold said. "Curators can be seen as goodly souls trying to save important events, and they can be looked upon as ghouls picking at tragic events."

The pickings have to be flexible. The Smithsonian's historic collection must work both for audiences today and for historians and others years from now.

"What we've built is a core collection that can be used in five or six or eight different ways, through exhibits, through Web broadcasts, through loans to other museums, through lectures with slides - for the centennial of 9-11, in 2101. We will have the tools, the roots and branches, for them to build upon," said Shayt on the "Bearing Witness" Web site.

Six months after the attacks, Kendrick said, curatorial staff members preparing for the debut of the exhibit in Washington, D.C., were extremely hesitant, not even sure if they should mount a show for the first anniversary. Was it too soon? Were the wounds too fresh? Or did the public want the story told on the first anniversary? They polled visitors at the museum and the response was an emphatic "yes" for the show, but with restrictions. The public did not want the museum to include the hijackers. The museum staff complied. "Bearing Witness" does not examine the terrorists, Islamic extremism, Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida.

Some of the most fragile artifacts in that original show, such as the "Bellevue wall," are not traveling in the exhibition. The "wall" was a temporary plywood structure next to Bellevue Hospital, an emergency center close to ground zero in New York City that became plastered with fliers of the missing. The photocopies and Polaroid pictures were covered in a sheet of plastic to protect them from the rain, and the plastic began to collect the dust that was stirred up during recovery operations. The Washington show had a section of the Bellevue wall complete with fliers, plastic and dust. The plastic is considered part of the artifact, as is the fine dust that settled on it, rendering the wall too delicate for transportation.

A briefcase belonging to an office worker who made it out alive didn't travel either. The Smithsonian considers the dust that covers it an intrinsic part of the history of the piece and the telling of the story.

"The most important function of the collection is preservation, in and of itself - it is the fundamental purpose of the museum," Shayt said on the Web site. He envisions the day when a grandchild of one of the victims arrives at the museum. She is so old that she is in a wheelchair, but she has come to see what happened the day her grandfather died. "That will justify everything we've done, with one visit."

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© 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services