44th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 15, “Preserving Trauma: Treatment Challenges at the 9/11 Memorial Museum” by John Childs and Maureen Merrigan

John Childs presented the treatment and installation challenges the conservation team faced at the 9/11 Memorial museum.
After 9/11, spontaneous memorials appeared, and the 9/11 Memorial Museum became the permanent memorial for this tragic event. It created a need to save and preserve physical evidence of the attacks, ranging from bits of paper to enormous steel girder and fire engines, not because of what it was but how it demonstrated in a physical way the trauma of that day. As conservators, we recognize where value lies in making treatment decisions, but poor condition itself is valued for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Three treatments that posed philosophical challenges were explored in this talk.
The first was a Warner Bros. sign, which was saved from the store on the concourse level of the World Trade Center by some workers who found the material evocative. The object included letters as well as portions of the wall it was installed on. The question became how much of the sign to include in exhibition: the whole thing? The letters, cement tile, and mortar? Just the letters? Childs questioned whether this discussion was legitimate. Museums don’t usually select portions of an object but when extracting bits of wreckage, where are the boundaries between one object from another? There were so many layers that they distracted from the letters, so the decision was made to saw off wall board from the letters because that is where the value lies. It was then affixed to aluminum honeycomb and rendered legible as an object but also preserved the trauma it suffered. It takes its place among evocative objects from the site.
The second treatment involved the B2 parking level wall from the garage. The preservation of trauma is the primary conservation goal: the preservation of trauma of specific events, 9/11, but also of February 21, 1993, the truck bomb in the garage of the World Trade Center. Part of the B2 parking level wall, complete with scorch marks, was covered, wrapped, and transported to museum. It arrived during construction of the building and protections against flooding were not in place at this time. Hurricane Sandy flooded the area and seven feet of water went into the museum site, submerging large objects under water. It took five days to pump the water out and clean the objects. Vehicles or steel were primarily the large objects and medium pressure steam was used to clean these objects. The B2 slab was now covered with a layer of silt on its surface, on top of the soot from 9/11. The decision was made to completely remove evidence of Sandy, though Sandy was now another trauma suffered in NY. The value of the collection lies in its history and this would be hiding that history, but the mission of the museum was not to preserve the memory of Sandy. They had to remove the trauma of Sandy while preserving trauma of 9/11. They delayed treatment and found that as the silt dried, it could be brushed off without disturbing the 9/11 soot underneath. They waited until it was installed vertically in the exhibition and brushed the surface into a HEPA vacuum, revealing the soot.
Dust was an enormously significant part of the story, including silica, asbestos, and man-made vitreous fibers, creating a decidedly unhealthy environment. This really amounted to human remains. Dust was all that people had left of loved ones. Dust had a unique place in that story, as both a lethal and sacred substance. Childs stated that there is a palpable and justifiable fear of it in NY still today. Dust was donated to the museum, and one of the most significant donations is a display of Chelsea Jeans, a store on Broadway a couple of blocks from the site. The owner found the store under a thick layer of dust and left part of the store undisturbed, sealed behind glass to protect customers. He donated the storefront to the New York Historical Society, who used asbestos mitigation to deinstall and move it to NYHS. It was put on display in 2006 in a specially designed case and then donated to the 9/11 museum. To install it, the museum had to hire an environmental mitigation company to create an asbestos containment chamber in the galleries. Those working on the display took a course on asbestos training, had medical tests and a respirator fit testing. The containment chamber consisted of crates for objects, crates for glass sealing case, entry chamber (air lock), and a shower for decontamination after exiting enclosure. They all wore respirators and disposable coveralls. Given the situation, they had to make installation decisions as they were working, and they had a window so curators could be involved from the outside. The case was installed in a way that curators thought would best represent the original display. Glazers were installed and sealed the glass. Many people not used to standard museum procedures were very involved in this process, making cooperation and compromise absolutely necessary. This exhibition combines, in one setting, all of the disparate meanings of dust on 9/11 and is in the section on response and recovery of the museum.
For the 9/11 museum, damage and destruction is the story. For conservation, it is critical to appropriately save the evidence of damage that will tell the story effectively. Childs expressed how it can be emotionally charged with horror, sadness, and loss. The museum and experience have a profound meaning for a huge number of people, and Childs ended his talk by expressing what an absolute honor it was to participate.