Biographical / Historical
In the early spring of 2002, the National Museum of American History began production of an exhibition, "September 11: Bearing Witness to History", commemorating the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, delaying the exhibit's production in 2001, museum staff and partners had a 6 to 7-month period to plan and produce the exhibit. The process included not only design and research, but also reaching out to survivors and victim's families to collect personal effects and testimonies. While it proved to be a tremendous and emotionally difficult undertaking, the exhibit was completed on time and opened on September 11, 2002.
"September 11: Bearing Witness to History" attracted over a million visitors during its ten-month run at the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, DC, closing on July 6, 2003. With a goal of serving as a space of personal reflection, the exhibition included personal stories, photographs, and artifacts from the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the Flight 93 crash site in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The exhibition also had a companion exhibit online (now defunct).
Each of the six exhibit sections was designed to have a somber impact on visitors: a narrow entrance portal featuring reactions to the attacks, a photo gallery featuring professional and amateur photography of the events, the object gallery from the three sites, a video produced by ABC News for the museum, interactive stations where guests listened to individual witness stories, and a visitor ledger where guests could reflect on the exhibit.
After its closing in Washington D.C., the exhibition was hosted at seven locations nationwide, including the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (Fort Worth, Texas) from September 11, 2003, to January 4, 2004; the East Tennessee Historical Society (Knoxville, Tennessee) from January 30 to May 23, 2004; the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, California) from July 1 to August 15, 2004; the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) from September 11, 2004 to January 2, 2005; the Washington State Historical Society (Tacoma, Washington) from January 30 to April 24, 2005; Union Station, Kansas City (Kansas City, Missouri) from May to August 2005; and the National Heritage Museum (Lexington, Massachusetts) from September 11, 2005 to January 1, 2006.
The exhibition featured the distribution of 5 ½" x 9 ½" comment cards where visitors could write or draw their personal experiences of the September 11 attacks. Only basic demographic information (age, location, gender) was collected on these cards, and visitors had the choice of allowing their stories to be presented publicly. Two versions of the cards were used with slight differences in presented information, one that was distributed from the National Museum of American History, and the second being distributed from the host museums. Both versions informed participants that their responses would be part of the National Museum of American History, Archives Center's permanent archival collections.
The comment cards were made available in the exhibition hall in each venue for visitors to record their comments. Some cards were sent back to the museum via mail from abroad or other states. Other submitted cards indicated forethought on the part of their creator, with attached memorabilia such as photographs, drawings, flyers, poems, medals and pins, and patches.
Although the exhibition was featured at eight locations, cards from only six of the locations are represented in this collection. The two locations that are not featured are the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Washington State Historical Society. It is not known if these locations participated in the comment card project.
Numbering perhaps in the tens of thousands, the comment cards capture a vivid, collective memory across all demographics and serve as an important historic primary source reservoir of early attitudes from the American and global consciousness in the aftermath of the attacks.