By DEBORAH DURHAM-VICHR
The making of the exhibition "Witness and Response: September 11 Acquisitions at the Library of Congress" has its own story. As it turned out, the "story" was the easy part, said Irene Chambers, head of Interpretive Programs (IPO), the office charged with bringing order and sense to the hundreds, if not thousands, of items from the Library's resources that are reviewed for inclusion in each of its many exhibitions.
"The easiest thing [in "Witness and Response"] was the storyline–which is how the Library acquired the material. Everything after that was not so easy," Chambers said. "Not only was the material sometimes very graphic and very evocative, but it was also still arriving on a daily basis as we assembled the exhibition," she said. Chambers purposely allowed pieces to be added until just a few days before opening.
"Since we wanted to tell the story as fully as possible, we had to leave it open-ended," said Chambers. "Once we began to look at what the collection areas had and everything we'd like to do, we couldn't do it the normal way, which is to have a final object list as soon as possible. Normally, everything depends on the object list–the budget, the design, everything–you can't develop anything else without it. We told the designer, 'You will have to leave some empty space.'"
The exhibition layout changed repeatedly as material fell into place. As a result, the design and the fabrication of materials converged, occurring at the same time. This was especially challenging for the IPO production staff. They had to invent effective ways of mounting new materials that were safe and secure for the collections, as well as attractive. Simultaneously, they had to choose items, pick up materials, do the conservation work, review and measure things for display purposes.
The idea for "Witness and Response" grew out of a patriotic display that IPO and the Public Service Collections Directorate (PSCD) created for the Library's private sector advisory board, the James Madison Council, this spring. It featured 9/11 items as well as items from the past 200 years. The 9/11 materials were particularly riveting, Chambers said, and at the time an incredible number of items related to September 11 were coming into the Library's divisions–ranging from Prints and Photographs, Geography and Map, and Serial and Government Periodicals divisions to the overseas offices and the American Folklife Center. At the end of June, with the impetus coming from Diane Kresh, Winston Tabb, associate librarian for Library Services, and various collection areas, IPO prepared to mount an exhibition to correspond to the one-year anniversary of the attacks. The date gave them less than three months to put it all together; the usual lead time for exhibitions can be as much as two years or more.
Almost everything about the creation of this exhibit was different from the way her office usually organizes exhibitions, Chambers said. "We didn't want to 'iconicize' the material, to interpret it for the viewer. Much of it is too raw, too immediate. Rather than handling each item as a discrete thing, we are deliberately blurring the lines to allow the viewers to find their own way through the presentation. We left it still fresh in its response."
There are no individual description labels, no attempt to define in any specific way what a visitor is viewing, except for the separation of "Witness" items from those of "Response." If visitors choose, they can pick up an information sheet with item descriptions. Long walls of images track the events of the cataclysmic day. Seven media stations with PowerPoint presentations, a Web presentation, audio and video punctuate the story, and in a way, provide relief from the shocking still-lifes, said Chambers.
The material at one of the stations–a compilation of eight clips of footage that will loop continuously in a video kiosk–comes from the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Two of the sequences capture the strike on the second Twin Tower, one taken from across the East River in Brooklyn and the other shot across the street from the building itself. This last piece of film was widely played on newscasts across the country and came to the Library as a copyright deposit.
Some artifacts were privy to very few, such as a printout from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the radar contacts of American Airlines Flight 77, as it made a 360-degree turn above Washington, D.C., toward the Pentagon. "You see this tiny, delicate red circle following that path to death and destruction. It's harrowing," Chambers said.
Viewers physically move from the actual event to the worldwide reaction. They take part in the aftermath, reading the unprecedented headlines in periodicals from around the world. They share the outpouring of emotions–drawings, poems and caricatures collected from children, well-known artists and ordinary citizens–as people tried to make sense of the disasters. An innovative "Soundscape" in the Orientation Theater on the ground floor of the Jefferson Building allows visitors to listen to individuals' reactions drawn from hundreds of audio tapes collected shortly after September 11 by the American Folklife Center.
The exhibition shows other types of responses too. Infrared photos from the Geography and Map Division capture hotspots at the World Trade Center which firefighters used to try and find victims. A cover of an Indian magazine, collected by the Library's overseas field offices, shows the different ways that Osama bin Laden could appear in disguise. Field offices also contributed anti-American posters, documenting another point of view on the disasters.
Above all, the exhibition is a penetrating reminder of the Library's multi-faceted role in collecting information and research. One such item on display is a report by the Library's Federal Research Division, commissioned by the National Intelligence Council, stating that suicide bombers–and specifically those of Al Qaeda–could crash-land an aircraft into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House. The report is dated 1999.
"We're telling the intelligent, inquisitive visitor, 'We're showing you what we have, what we had [before 9/11] and what we're getting,'" said Chambers. It helps visitors understand the role of the Library and how it builds collections for future use by scholars and researchers. "How could the Library not do this exhibition?" she added. "No other institution has amassed such a record."
Deborah Durham-Vichr is a contract writer/editor in the Public Affairs Office.