A Day of Reflection
A library exhibition from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and the American Library Association unites generations to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11
WASHINGTON, D.C. —Those old enough in 2001 to comprehend the shock and horror of the September 11 terrorist attacks can recall those events with crystalline clarity. Most can provide an almost hour-by-hour account of the day from the moment when the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. But for those who were children or born after the September 11 attacks, the event and the era of mourning, fear, and political turmoil that followed are known only through the remove of history books, television programs, and conversations with relatives. As the twentieth anniversary of September 11 approaches, a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-funded library exhibition program offers an opportunity for both those audiences to come together to remember the largest foreign attack on American soil, honor the victims, and reflect on its significance as a historical turning point.
Read a joint statement from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) on the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
This fall, thousands of organizations in the U.S. and abroad will host and take part in events related to September 11, 2001: The Day That Changed the World, a national exhibition and community programs project that examines the events of September 11, its historical precursors, and ongoing legacy. Funded by a $200,000 grant from NEH, the project was developed by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in collaboration with the American Library Association (ALA) to bring the resources of the 9/11 Memorial Museum directly to communities across the country to complement local commemorations of the 20th anniversary.
Originally planned as a panel exhibition that would travel to 20 U.S. libraries, the initiative was reimagined as a downloadable poster exhibit after the coronavirus shuttered libraries and museums. The online exhibition is open to all libraries and provides educational materials and virtual public programming that could replace or augment socially-distanced local events.
The serendipitous outcome of this change, says Clifford Chanin, Executive Vice President and Deputy Director for Museum Programs at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, is that the redesigned exhibition will now reach a much broader audience, and give communities and organizations the opportunity to connect and commemorate the anniversary collectively through the museum’s online programs. “As a national institution with over three million visitors a year pre-COVID, we’ve always understood the museum has a wide reach,” says Chanin. “But adapting the exhibition to a downloadable format has made it a thousand times more expansive and allowed us to extend our programs well beyond the walls of the museum.”
To date, more than 3,300 organizations from across all fifty states and thirty countries have registered for the September 11, 2001: The Day That Changed the World posters and programs. The majority are libraries, both public libraries and elementary, high school, and college libraries, as well as some at medical and law schools and correctional facilities. Among these are Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind Library in Gooding, ID; the Ouzinkie Tribal Media Center Library in Ouzinkie, Alaska; the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women Library in Troy, Virginia; the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus Medical Staff Library in Baltimore, Maryland; the Supreme Court of New Mexico Law Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Technical Library in Huntsville, Alabama; and the C.H. Booth Library, the public library of Newtown, Connecticut. The project has also attracted participation from numerous other organizations ranging from Girl Scout troops and homeschooling families to military bases and the Transportation Security Administration headquarters. The City of Phoenix, Arizona, will use the poster exhibit in the city’s September 11th memorial events; and the State Department has arranged for its display at several U.S. embassies in Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East.
The free, downloadable, and ready-to-print exhibition is composed of 14 individual posters featuring archival photographs and images of artifacts from the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s permanent collection that tell the story of the September 11 attacks, and its impact on victims, survivors, first responders, recovery workers, and witnesses. Some of the artifacts featured are a Defense Protective Services Police patch of Officer Isaac Ho’opi’i, who led survivors of the attack at the Pentagon to safety, and a wristwatch recovered from the site of the crash of Flight UA 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania—the date “11” frozen on the watchface—that had belonged to Todd M. Beamer, one of several passengers who attempted to wrest control of the plane from 9/11 hijackers. Items on the War on Terror, 9/11 memorials, the health impacts of World Trade Center toxic dust on recovery workers, and the designation of September 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance invite viewers to reflect on how, twenty years later, 9/11 continues to affect us.
Participating sites receive training on using the exhibition along with access to digital educational materials and live virtual programming offered by the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Libraries and schools requiring financial or technical assistance were able to request hard copies of the exhibition posters. Many organizations will also hold local events, such as discussion programs, blood drives, art exhibitions, and memorial services focusing on their community’s connection to 9/11.
In addition to providing a national focus for commemorations of the anniversary, the project seeks to teach young people with no lived experience of the September 11 attacks—including many now on the cusp of adulthood—about its legacy. “We recognize that a whole generation born after 9/11 doesn’t understand the significance, or the way it shaped their world, or how it continues to show up on the front pages of newspapers,” said Chanin. The museum has created a 9/11 primer, for use with the exhibition, containing suggested reading lists, primary resources, videos, lesson plans, and individual classroom modules, tailored to grade level.
Libraries and schools hosting the exhibition are also encouraged to join the museum’s live “Anniversary in the Schools” webinar on September 10 and 11, an educational program that features first-person accounts of September 11 and an interactive chat that lets students connect with and ask questions of 9/11 Memorial Museum staff and guest speakers. The webinar aims to help young people understand 9/11 through the experiences of peers, and emphasizes themes of recovery, resilience, and service. Students and teachers will hear from Brielle Saracini and Cait Leavey, whose fathers were both killed on 9/11, and Carlton Shelley II, who was a student in the elementary school where President George W. Bush learned about the 9/11 attacks. Thanks to outreach from the museum and ALA, over 600,000 people have registered for the anniversary webinars.
For additional information on the exhibition and how to participate in virtual September 11 programs, consult the project’s site: www.911memorial.org/learn/resources/digital-exhibitions/september-11-2001-day-changed-world
Additional NEH-supported projects and resources:
The September 11 Digital Archive, created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is the largest public collection of digital materials produced in the wake of 9/11. The online collection contains more than 150,000 items, including first-hand accounts, emails, digital photographs, videos, and artworks created in response to the events of 9/11. Preservation of this born-digital archive was supported by a “Save America’s Treasures” grant administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building, by Judith Dupré, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the conception and construction of America’s most emotionally charged new skyscraper. Written with support from an NEH Public Scholars grant, Dupré provides a definitive account of the 14 years of conflict and controversy behind the creation of the 1,776-foot-tall engineering marvel, based on more than 70 interviews with the people most intimately involved in the project. Follow Dupré on a tour through One World Trade center with this Humanities magazine article, and read this Q&A about the book.
Numerous programs created through NEH Dialogues on the Experience of War grants support humanities discussion projects for military veterans, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. These projects use the humanities to examine shared experiences of war, military service, and homecoming. This Humanities magazine article describes one Dialogues on the Experience of War program at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, New York, near Fort Drum, in which participants read and discussed historical accounts, memoirs, personal letters, and poetry written by soldiers from the Civil War and Vietnam War, and worked with an art therapist to create “inside/outside masks” as a way of processing their own experiences of war. Several of these masks are now on display at the U.S. Embassy in London.
American Catholicism and the Cantor Fitzgerald Employees Who Lost Their Lives on 9/11: Religion scholar Julie Byrne at Hofstra University is using an NEH Public Scholars grant to write a book about the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of its 960 New York employees in the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. The firm’s employees were largely young men, mostly Catholic, from the Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut suburbs. The book will examine 9/11 through the family stories of five Cantor Fitzgerald workers killed in the tragedy.
National Endowment for the Humanities: Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at neh.gov.