Public Media Arts Hub

Smithsonian Institution pieces together 9/11 history through personal, poignant relics


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: With memory of 9/11 fading for some, and images of that day unknown to a younger generation, the Smithsonian Institution is piecing together history object by object.

William Brangham is back with a behind-the-scenes look, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

William Brangham: Tucked away within the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., are some of the most personal and poignant relics from September 11.

Peter Liebhold, National Museum of American History: There were people that really wanted to make sure that the loss, the sacrifice, the experience of their loved ones was recorded.

William Brangham: Back in 2002, Congress tasked the museum with preserving the story of 9/11 in artifacts from that day and beyond.

Peter Liebhold: Collecting is truly a black art. There's no book on how to do it. We wanted to collect those icons, those really important pieces that create a signpost.

Today, there are deniers of the Holocaust. We hear from Afghanistan that the Taliban is denying that Osama bin Laden was involved in September 11, that having those artifacts that make it undeniable that something happened is so critical.

William Brangham: There is no special exhibit right now, in part because of the pandemic, but the museum rotates many of its some-300 objects from 9/11 in and out of exhibitions.

Peter Liebhold: This is a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. We traveled to the scrap yard, picked out a piece that we really thought looked like the emotion of the place, and collected it.

The World Trade Center was assembled like a Tinkertoy set, in little pieces that could be put together. And we could actually figure out whose office this was that -- who it represented.

William Brangham: In addition to the steel beam, other items from that day are this airphone from Flight 93, where passengers and crew fought the terrorists and downed the plane in rural Pennsylvania, and this I.D. card worn by Navy Commander Patrick Dunn, who'd kissed his pregnant wife goodbye before heading to the Pentagon, where he was killed in the attack.

There's the cell phone used by then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as he helped his city respond.

Rudy Giuliani (R), Former Mayor of New York: All right, let's get -- let's go north then.

William Brangham: The angry aftermath of 9/11 is reflected as well.

This Sikh turban belonged to Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered in a hate crime, mistakenly targeted as a Muslim in the days after the attacks. Other powerful objects came from the donations of loved ones. New York Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer was one of the initial commanders on scene at the World Trade Center, directing firefighters up into the burning towers.

One of those firemen was his brother Kevin.

Jospeh Pfeifer, Author, "Ordinary Heroes": And we stood there and we looked at each other, wondering if each of us was going to be OK. And then I told him to go up, to evacuate and to rescue people in the building. And that was the last time I saw my brother Kevin.

William Brangham: His brother's body was discovered in the smoldering wreckage days later, along with Kevin's officer's tool, which is an implement used to wedge open doors.

Jospeh Pfeifer: And we knew it was him because on the back of his bunker gear it had his name. And lying next to him was his officer's tool. And they put him in a stretcher along with this tool and covered him with an American flag, and we carried him out of ground zero.

William Brangham: Joe Pfeifer later donated Kevin's officer's tool to the Smithsonian.

Jospeh Pfeifer: I hope that they come away understanding that they represent what I call ordinary heroes. That day, as my brother was coming up, people were coming down. And he was -- he was telling them, don't stop, keep going, you can get out of here.

He stopped to take and redirect people from one stairs to a safer stairs, a faster way out. And I'm sure he used that tool to point. Doing ordinary things at an extraordinary time made a difference.

William Brangham: Twenty year ago, Univision reporter Blanca Rosa Vilchez in her blue suit was out covering the New York mayoral race. But when the towers fell, millions watched her in real time.

After days reporting on the attack, Vilchez put that outfit unwashed into the back of her closet. Years later, she too donated it to the Smithsonian.

Blanca Rosa Vilchez, Univision: What have we learned in these 20 years. This person who ran with the jacket is alive. How is she doing now? What happened to the country in 20 years?

And if that jacket talks to us, the person himself or herself, that question, that jacket doesn't belong to me. It belongs to a museum.

William Brangham: Her outfit will soon be part of a new larger Latino exhibit examining 9/11's impact on that community.

Cedric Yeh, National Museum of American History: Individual communities were affected on different levels. And this is our opportunity to be able to tell their story, because it allows us to tell the broader story, especially after 20 years.

William Brangham: In another area of the museum, photo curator Shannon Perich continues to add to the over 1,000 photos the Smithsonian has gathered to help document that day and its ripple effects.

Shannon Perich, National Museum of American History: This is a body of work by photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson, who created a who created a series and a book called "Bedrooms of the Fallen."

It's an homage to those soldiers who gave their lives in the line of duty in Afghanistan in particular. But it also reminds us of where the war takes place. It takes place at the home front.

William Brangham: For the past 18 years, the Smithsonian has been building this time-capsule-like collection, including this clock from the Pentagon frozen in time the moment the plane hit, a reminder for all time.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

John Yang: The public can share stories, see photos and artifacts, and watch discussions on the National Museum of American History's Web site,

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.