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Within a few weeks of the September 11 attacks several institutions, including museums such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the New York Historical Society, and individuals, such as Nicola McClean, a photojournalist, and Damon DiMarco, a writer, started collecting the moment through objects, images, and stories. Spontaneous memorials appeared almost immediately and, within a year, the Smithsonian had put on the exhibit September 11: Bearing Witness to History, the New York Fire Museum had created a display of memorial material, and the Museum of the City of New York had mounted an exhibit of children's art entitled The Day Our World Changed (for more examples of projects see This Fall, museums are again tackling the subject of September 11, this time in the context of the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Ten years later, how museums create a material record of this event remains a sensitive and complicated question. (more...)

Both the decisions to include and to exclude particular material in museums raise concerns. An especially difficult issue for museums early on was whether to collect the spontaneous memorials that appeared on the sites of the attacks, and if so, which ones? (most museums decided instead to record these in photographs). Collecting decisions today continue to run into the opposing views of different communities, who worry about how the selection process makes implicit decisions about what is historically important (AP, "Atheist Group Sues Over Cross at Sept. 11 Museum," Wall Street Journal July 27, 2011). And these choices are being made at a time when we continue publicly to constitute September 11 as something to be remembered, an event to be invoked as a series of personal stories and responses somehow brought into an abstracted narrative of trauma, rather than extensively interpreted (Edward Rothstein "Recapturing the Spirit of a City as It Reeled From Its Wounds," exh. rev. NYTimes September 7, 2011). Most of this Fall's museum exhibits about September 11 are casting both curators and visitors as witnesses, often by asking them to tell their story and so experience and convey the historical event according to their personal feelings.

Jennifer Kingsley

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