Plucked from the rubble, these and other physical reminders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks now have a second life as bits of history. They go on display Thursday at the New York State Museum, one of the handful of institutions gingerly beginning to exhibit artifacts from ground zero.
The timing is unusual since museums usually do not display historical artifacts so soon after an event. But curators said they are important pieces and hope the quick cycling from tragedy to history can help visitors come to terms with Sept. 11.
"I see them as a touchstone. People use them to get in touch with what happened," said Mark Schaming, the museum's director of exhibitions. "There is a great power in seeing a small bent sign."
At the museum, artifacts from ground zero will complement attack-related pictures taken by Magnum agency photographers. A larger exhibit, including a fire truck from a company that was nearly wiped out responding to the disaster, will open next month.
The New York Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution also will open exhibits in the coming months that include pieces exhumed from the wreckage.
The artifacts are a byproduct of the massive operation to find human remains and evidence in debris sorted at a Staten Island landfill. Selected historical institutions were given access to the reopened Fresh Kills landfill during the operation.
Schaming and his curatorial co-worker Craig Williams were among the handful of museum officials allowed to observe workers meticulously rake and sift through mountains of debris.
"I said to Craig, 'This is sort of the hidden history of the World Trade Center,"' Schaming recalled. "We saw that we had a narrow window to collect and document all these things."
Curators were eventually allowed to take artifacts into their collections. Schaming said after some initial wariness, site workers began offering the stuff they'd find. Schaming's plea to them: Think of objects that people want to know about 100 years from now.
The museum collected a wealth of poignant objects like cell phones covered with the same gray dust that shrouded lower Manhattan, a sullied rag doll of Fred from the "Scooby-Doo" cartoons and a ripped red umbrella.
Other objects illustrate the magnitude of the disaster: hand-sized pieces of jet fuselage, a massive steel girder bent like a hairpin, pretzeled pieces of the towers' face and a wobbly BMW steering wheel.
Still other artifacts come from the rescue effort: part of a black leather NYPD holster, an ambulance door and the pumper from Engine Company No. 6, which lost four of the company's five crew members in the attack.
The artifacts are haunting, conjuring thoughts of 2,800 lives lost in the attacks. Even curators speak of their struggle with emotions while collecting the pieces.
Yet they still believe it's important to share their work. Jim Gardner, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, went as far as to call it an obligation.
"We feel that this first anniversary is a time when we need to be thinking about this historical moment and the ways in which we were all a part," Gardner said.
On Sept. 11, the Smithsonian's museum in Washington, D.C., will open its exhibit including photos, personal stories and objects like stairwell signs from the trade center and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's baseball cap.
The exhibit space also will be fitted with extra seats for overcome viewers to sit. The New York Historical Society, which will display artifacts beginning Sept. 9, will include signs warning visitors that the contents of the exhibits can be upsetting.
Schaming said the State Museum's September exhibit is being designed so the first thing visitors see is a chain link fence that once stood on the border of ground zero. The fence is festooned with rosaries, flowers and flags - symbols of love, hope and determination amid the artifacts of destruction.
By Michael Hill