I spent a year after college working as a curatorial assistant in the same Lincoln/Civil War museum where I was an undergraduate intern. We had a small staff, with one part-time guest relations employee. On days she didn’t work, the rest of us had to keep one eye on whatever we were usually doing and another eye on the front desk to check visitors in. A row of floor-to-ceiling glass windows separated the office area from the lobby and gift shop.
One Tuesday I spotted an elderly couple walk through the door from the atrium, so I ran over to the front counter to take their admission fee. Before I had a chance to do the usual little spiel—temporary exhibit gallery upstairs, restrooms behind you and to the left, no flash pictures—the wife said, “We just heard on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”
I visualized something like a small prop plane jammed into the side of a more or less structurally intact building. “Gee, that’s odd,” I said, and went back to what I assumed would be a mundane Tuesday. It wasn’t.
We didn’t have a TV in the building, and the news websites couldn’t keep up with all the traffic, so we spent several hours huddled around a radio. I didn’t see the images that riveted most of the world until I got home. Instead, I heard radio announcers trying to make sense of what was happening and sort out all the rumors that were flying around—a missile into the Pentagon, a car bomb at the State Department, explosions at the White House and FBI headquarters. In the same way that the creature in a horror movie is scarier before the director lets you get a good look at him, what happened that day seemed especially frightening when you couldn’t see it unfold on TV.
One of the things I learned about public history back in those days between college and grad school was that good interpretation is as much as about quantity as quality. Sometimes objects require you to slather on the interpretation and tell visitors why they matter and what we can learn from them. Other objects speak for themselves, and the public historian just needs to get out of the way. Artifacts like that do your work for you, because they’re more eloquent than any exhibit copy. A simple identification label will suffice.
So here are two such artifacts, separated by exactly 224 years—to the very day—of American history.
Revolutionary militiamen carried this flag at the Battle of Brandywine, PA on Sept. 11, 1777 (from vexman.net).
Recovery workers found this one in the rubble of the World Trade Center (from the NMAH).