Curating 9/11 at the National Law Enforcement Museum

How do you curate difficult histories? In the museum field, some topics are more challenging to curate than others. This can be for various reasons. Maybe there is a lack of artifacts left behind to help tell the story. Perhaps two groups have opposing views of the same historical event. Or maybe this topic is painful and still impacts those who lived through it.
I was 10 when those airplanes hit the towers. Though I was living on the West Coast and nowhere near the physical attacks, I loved my country and felt scared and confused. My vivid memories from the days following were staring up at a sky empty of commercial planes, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance whenever the clock read 9:11, and greeting my dad after he drove across the country in an RV because he and his coworkers had been stranded in Boston. I know that many people who also lived through September 11, 2001, have their own stories to share.

Watch former New York (NY) Police Commissioner Ray Kelly remember September 11, 2001.
So how did we create the 9/11 section of History Time Capsules at the National Law Enforcement Museum? Keeping in mind that we were dealing with a difficult topic in recent history, the curatorial team worked to interpret 9/11 in a way that could be relatable and meaningful to a wide range of people. Whether the event happened hundreds of years ago or in the last 10 years, the curatorial process was generally the same.
First, we started with the themes we wanted to highlight. When my predecessor planned out the 9/11 section of the exhibit, she split it into two themes. In the exhibit section, the right side focuses on law enforcement efforts on the day of the attacks. The left side explores the lasting effects that 9/11 had on the law enforcement profession.
Next, we looked at the artifacts that would help us get these themes across. In our collection, we had many artifacts related to September 11, 2001. These include:
• A folded American flag that once covered the body of Port Authority of New York/New Jersey Police Department Captain Kathy Mazza after it was recovered at Ground Zero. Mazza died in the collapse of the North Tower while trying to escort someone to safety.
• A steel beam and a stone fragment, both from the World Trade Center.
• A piece of one of the airplanes.
• The second page of a letter that someone grabbed from Manhattan’s dust-filled sky.
There are also many artifacts that are reminders of what happened after that day. On display we have:
• The pakol, a traditional Pakistani hat, Osama Bin Laden was wearing when he was killed.
• A hardhat and flashlight used during the recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
• New TSA screening tools: plastic bags and 3oz bottles.
• Thank you letters to the police, written by school children.
The next step was writing the exhibit text. We started with the main label. I think of this as the big idea, or the thesis statement, that ties the whole section together. The main label of the 9/11 section is a bit different than in the other sections of the Museum. While it has some interpretive text, half of the label simply lists the names of the 72 law enforcement professionals who lost their lives that day.
When it comes to exhibit text, bias is not inherently bad. In fact, I would argue you can’t have an exhibit completely free of bias. The trick is to be aware and intentional about it. For example, the following graphic was flagged for bias when the text for this exhibit was reviewed by professional historians independent of this organization. And they were right, words like “horrifying,” “welcome” and “needed” are not neutral. These are not provable through concrete data points. We chose to keep this language because it helped tell a story that many Americans could relate to.

Exhibit text from one of the drawers in the 9/11 section of History Time Capsules.

In any exhibit case, there is a level of curatorial choice. It’s the curator’s job to reconstruct the events of the past into a narrative that is factual and meaningful. We make decisions concerning what themes to highlight, what specifics to talk about, and what artifacts to include. For a topic like 9/11, there was a lot of content that did not make it into the current case for lack of space. I like to tell people that the good news about museum exhibits is that no display is permanent. Changes happen regularly, whether it be a rotation of an artifact or a replacement of a graphic. And with these additions and alterations, new aspects of this difficult historical event can be included. However, when it comes to the 9/11 exhibit, it is my hope that visitors to the Museum, especially survivors, feel that it is a good representation of the impact that day and its aftermath had on the history of American law enforcement.

Chelsea Hansen is the Curator at the National Law Enforcement Museum. She has her Masters in History from American University. Her favorite movie line of all time is “That belongs in a museum!”, said by Indiana Jones in the third movie of the franchise.