Restoring the Ruins

By Lee Rosenbaum The Wall Street Journal

Steven Weintraub and John Childs had an abnormal assignment as principal conservation consultants to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

“Most museums bring in conservators to fix things,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the museum. “Our conservators had the extraordinary obligation of figuring out how to present artifacts that were destroyed, falling apart, dented and mangled. They had to maintain the integrity of the destruction.”

That these unlikely museum treasures exist at all is due, in large measure, to an early, prescient decision by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that some objects should be saved for posterity. Mr. Weintraub’s Art Preservation Services (APS) was enlisted in 2002 to help preserve pieces moved by the Port Authority from Ground Zero to an abandoned airline hangar at John F. Kennedy Airport. Mr. Childs later became APS’s conservation manager for the 9/11 Museum project.

Among those items saved were not only monumental pieces like the exterior steel “trident columns” and the “impact steel” that took a direct airplane hit, but also smaller items reflecting everyday life before the attack. One object discovered on site by Jan Ramirez, now the 9/11 Museum’s vice president and chief curator, was a “bike rack with eight bikes that were so haunting”—a sensation museum visitors can now experience for themselves.

Climate and lighting control is essential to preserving objects whose materials, inks and colors were never intended to last for the long haul and are susceptible to decomposition and fading. “One might think that our light levels are set very low for dramatic purposes,” Ms. Greenwald remarked. “In fact, it’s for conservation purposes. The drama is an added benefit.” For proper humidity and temperature control, the museum’s two core exhibitions—its historical and memorial displays—”had to be in the spaces of the Twin Towers’ footprints, because they are the only enclosed spaces at bedrock.”

A surprising hazard to the museum’s monumental objects, including emergency vehicles, is the visitors who want to touch them. “Firefighters and police officers often do a sign of the cross,” Ms. Ramirez noted. “They say a prayer in front of these things.” That’s why the museum treated a remnant of a steel column from the South Tower’s core, “so people could actually physically put their hands on that and pay their respects.”

Going beyond the painfully familiar photos, videos, voice recordings and news reports is the huge agglomeration of actual objects that figured in the attack and its aftermath, expressive beyond images or words: the bent, discolored badge worn by Capt. Kathy Mazza, one of the highest-ranking female officers in the Port Authority Police Department; the scraped, battered helmet of Jimmy Riches, who had just completed his probationary year in the Fire Department; the disfigured emergency vehicles, their bashed doors ajar but secured to prevent visitors from opening and closing them.

The sheer number and eclectic variety of artifacts on display—some 1,000 of the 13,000 in the museum’s collection—ensures that every visitor will find a touchstone that speaks directly to him.

As an arts writer, I was transfixed by the decapitated, discolored bronze nude from Auguste Rodin’s “The Three Shades.” It had plummeted from the offices of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, the company that sustained “the largest loss of life . . . on 9/11,” as the object label says. This battered but still recognizable fragment was owned by collector B. Gerald Cantor’s foundation. Morbidly befitting 9/11’s infernal atmosphere, it came from a posthumous cast of the three damned souls atop the sculptor’s monumental “Gates of Hell.”

Nothing was done by the conservators to “restore” this formerly museum-quality piece. “We didn’t want things to be made aesthetically pleasing,” Ms. Greenwald noted. “This isn’t about presenting a sculpture; it’s about presenting a remnant.”

Often, the main treatment that objects received was the removal of dirt and dust. Dust remains plentiful, though, in the striking display case from the neighborhood’s Chelsea Jeans store. Preserved by its owner, David Cohen, it was later acquired by the New-York Historical Society, and is now on loan to the 9/11 Museum. Ghostly pants, shirts and sweaters are still laden with the Twin Towers’ gray detritus.

Resonating strongly for visitors is what Ms. Greenwald called “a totem pole of the recovery”—the “Last Column.” The 36-foot-tall centerpiece of the cavernous Foundation Hall, it bears the photos, messages and memorabilia left by recovery workers and victims’ families. Unlike most of the objects on display, this standing steel column, the last one removed from the rubble, required considerable intervention from Mr. Weintraub, who was formerly an objects conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“When the ‘Last Column’ came to Hangar 17 [at Kennedy Airport], it had already been exposed to the elements,” Mr. Weintraub recounted. “Not only was there some damage to the attached ephemera, but more importantly, moisture was causing fresh rust . . . . Large sections of the metal surfaces were delaminating and some had actually fallen off.”

In a climate-controlled tent that Mr. Weintraub’s team had erected for the column, its unstable, rusted surface was treated “the same way you would treat paint that was cupping off of a panel painting: We syringed in adhesives, set everything down and stabilized it.”

Supported by a Save America’s Treasures federal challenge grant, the conservators painstakingly removed every item affixed to the column after documenting its exact position. To the reverse side of each piece they attached a magnetic sheet, cut to the item’s precise shape. Everything that visitors now see on the “Last Column” is magnetically attached.

Not everything on it is original, however. A few particularly fragile pieces are rotated onto display in neighboring vitrines, with replicas displayed on the column. The magnets “give the museum the opportunity in the future to replace other originals with replicas, based on the sensitivity of the object,” Mr. Weintraub said. Some light-sensitive objects—papers that flew out of the towers, for example—will be rotated with other comparable original objects from the museum’s deep collection. Its holdings continue to grow, as individuals, including victims’ family members, donate additional objects.

The task of Mr. Childs, now the museum’s staff conservator, is to establish a conservation lab, where he hopes to figure out how to consolidate the flaking rubber soles of the shoes worn by first responders when the pile of rubble at Ground Zero was so hot it burned them.

Perhaps that’s the sort of project Mr. Weintraub had in mind when he exulted: “The thing that excites me is the contributions we’re poised to make in the field. Through what we’ve been learning, there’s so much to share.”

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