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September 11, 2001
Collecting and Exhibiting a National Tragedy

Nancy A. Pope
National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution



The World Trade Center site ruins
The World Trade Center site, mid September, as viewed from the Church Street Post Office Station.

Discussions Regarding Collecting

A week after the attacks, the National Postal Museum staff met to discuss the museum's options for collecting and exhibit materials from the Church Street post office. Staff opinion was mixed regarding the appropriate time for an exhibit devoted to tragedy. The debate over collecting items was often heated within senior staff. I stood (mistakenly now I believe) firmly on the side of not collecting anything from the site. There were several reasons for my reluctance, rooted in the emotional turmoil of the time. I was unable to set aside the mental image of the site as a graveyard, a place at which we had no business collecting. Mine was not the only voice of hesitation. 

Damage sustained to offices in Church Street Post Office
Above and below: Damage sustained to offices in Church Street Post Office – due to explosions, fires and fire-fighting work on and after September 11, 2001.

Some of you may have gone through similar discussions in your organizations. As a museum representing America's postal history, we had a mission mandate to collect material from the site. But did the fact that we could collect mean that we should? This was a time when emotions overruled logical judgment for many.

The debate was finally brought to a full staff meeting for discussion. For those of us who focused on the tragedy and people involved for various reasons (some knew people who had been killed or were still missing), it was unthinkable that our museum would disrupt the site only to bring back and display items from that horrible moment. For those who were able to see past the disaster and incorporate the Museum's mission into their thinking, it was just as clear that we needed to be at Church Street, locating and documenting this history. 

Damage sustained to offices in Church Street Post Office

The one clear agreement the staff could reach was that regardless of object collection, the museum should seek to obtain oral histories from clerks and carriers who were working at Church Street Station that day. After hours of occasionally impassioned debate, a final decision was made to collect items from inside the Church Street Post Office.

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