Making the Tough Choices: A Q&A with Curators of the 9/11 Museum

By Carl Glassman Tribeca Trib

Jan Ramirez, left, and Amy Weinstein. Photo: Carl Glassman, Tribeca Trib

Jan Ramirez, left, and Amy Weinstein. Photo: Carl Glassman, Tribeca Trib

Jan Ramirez is chief curator and Amy Weinstein is associate director of collections and senior oral historian at the Na­tional September 11 Memorial & Mu­seum. The Trib interviewed them about their work at the museum, which opened last month.

The dominant artifacts rising up into the museum atrium are the twin “tridents,” the 70-foot high remnants of the North Tower. What made you choose them?

RAMIREZ: On our advisory committee, there were family members, survivors, responders, the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan residents. And the number of times they agreed outright on anything was very rare. But there was almost instant unanimity around the tridents. They were stripped of their skin but they were upright. They showed no evidence of having bowed. That was powerful for people. Like the slurry wall, they held.

A consensus on many of the curatorial decisions must not have been easy.

RAMIREZ: This is an organization that has always had internal group meetings to decide everything—the public will never know how often we had to gather to reach our own consensus about design directions and exhibit content. We may have had 38 meetings about whether to include this teddy bear or that teddy bear. And should the teddy bear be upright or is the teddy bear lying down and does the teddy bear cross its legs?

How do you approach a project this big?

RAMIREZ: We started by starting. Had we followed our normal practice, to write a proposal, do studies, have committees issuing white papers, we would have missed a couple of years’ worth of this material. The archeological relics in Hangar 17 at JFK Airport, brought from the rubble, was our foundational collection. So we had to start by saying, “All right, we’ve got 22 damaged rescue vehicles, which one do we choose? Do you choose the one that is a horribly damaged vehicle but everybody lived from that truck? That’s a great outcome but is that the most telling story you actually want as a first encounter?

How were the small, personal objects collected?

WEINSTEIN: One way was through our interviews with people who were at the site, ambulance drivers and firefighters, for example. When they were telling us their story, they might say they picked up something at Ground Zero and we would say, “Would you like to donate that to the museum?”

RAMIREZ: Some families found us. Despite the politics and delays, they really believed the museum was going to happen, and should happen, and they wanted to make sure their loved one’s item was preserved for posterity in a place with an educational mission.

How many oral histories did you conduct with survivors, family members, first responders and others? And how did you emotionally deal with speaking to so many people who had been through this tragedy?

WEINSTEIN: Jenny Pachucki and I conducted about 800 interviews. There were some days when you just couldn’t help but cry. But then there were other times when you were just so impressed when somebody tells you about their loved one, how they grew up and what kind of father or mother or spouse they were. And you wish you had met them—and then you wish you’d never heard about them because you only heard about them because of 9/11.

To keep it from being overwhelming, I think you shift gears. So instead of talking to survivors or to first responders, you talk to the memorial quilt makers or instead of talking to family members you talk to a survivor. Or you do some paperwork.

RAMIREZ: It was often like a confessional. People would say, I never told my wife this, I’ve never told my colleagues or my family, and they would tell in vivid detail something they saw, something that they were feeling. Or they hadn’t dared tell a mother that their daughter’s recovered pocketbook had been found and returned. So they would entrust that to us. It’s a huge moral responsibility.

Will you change the exhibits?

RAMIREZ: We have so much material, whether it’s the shoes worn by survivors or the recovered personal property of victims, that it will be rotated. Also, for the sake of conservation anything that’s textile or light-sensitive needs to be rotated out. Every object goes into our “option bank” to be pulled sometimes into the Memorial Exhibition, sometimes into the Historical Exhibition.

Will you do more oral histories?

WEINSTEIN: Yes. There are first responders who are retiring. Some have been waiting to talk about their complex emotions until they’re no longer in uniform. But also with family members, the kids have gotten a little bit older and are able to reflect, or people are in a new space in their grief process.

What is it like for you now to walk through the museum?

RAMIREZ: It was hard for me to pull back and see what we have done. I was always seeing what we hadn’t done or the detail we needed to fix. Then, about three days before we dedicated the museum, I found myself tearing up, walking into the Flight 93 alcove and hearing that program. We only chose two calls that were made by a passenger and a crew member to their loved ones and there’s some archival audio from the cockpit and FAA that is also very powerful. And then I looked around and realized how we referenced the efforts of a flight attendant to heat up water to throw on the hijackers, and there was the mangled water heater from the galley kitchen, recovered from the crash site. I’ve come to know the husband of the senior flight attendant and there was her small, fragile personal log book that was found in the debris field. And the watch that had been worn by passenger Todd Beamer, who helped resist the highjackers [sic] on that flight—his father is on our board of directors. It really came together in a sensory way that I wasn’t quite prepared for.

WEINSTEIN: It was really good to go through with the people who had donated something and watch them listen to their voices or see their words on the wall or see their object and what we had done with it. That was what made it all worthwhile.

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