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New-York Historical Society
Photograph: Courtesy New-York Historical Society/Jon Wallen

The New-York Historical Society to honor 9/11's 20th anniversary with historical context

The institution shares how it will reflect on the tragic events through rescued objects and archived photography.

Written by
André Wheeler

Next week, America will observe the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. To honor the moment, the New-York Historical Society, which has existed as a cultural institution since 1804, will stage a series of installations and film screenings that strive to provide understanding and context around what New Yorkers collectively experienced on the horrifying day of history. The experience will take place throughout Saturday, September 11, and will include the ethos-filled relics, including a damaged fire truck door from the first responders to arrive on the scene and candles, notes and mementos retrieved from memorials erected in the immediate aftermath. 

RELATED: Ways to mark September 11 in NYC in 2021

Time Out spoke with Margi Hofer, Vice President and Museum Director at the New-York Historical Society, about the institution's decades-spanning engagement with the legacy of 9/11 and highlighting the resiliency of New York through this special commemoration. 

What can visitors expect from these installations? 
One of the main features will be a film experience in our auditorium that was created from the Here Is New York archive. It uses about 175 images that were gathered and part of an endeavor to solicit photographs from both amateur and professional photographers and they were exhibited in SoHo shortly after the 9/11 attacks. It’s an incredible archive and what we’ve put together really traces the experience of that day and the days and weeks that followed. The works touch on the attacks themselves, the collapse of the buildings, the terror of the people who were present, the heroic rescue efforts. One of our special installations is a crushed rig from Rescue 2—an elite rescue unit part of the FDNY that was one of the first units to respond. All seven of the men were killed in the collapse. Overall, the installations are a very moving experience that recalls what it was like to be in the city at that time. 

How did the museum go about gathering the materials featured in the show? Are there a lot of artifacts already in the museum’s possession? 
These are all items that are in our collection. The Historical Society immediately began collection after the event and worked very closely with many agencies throughout the city—the FDNY, the NYPD, the FBI—and gradually added items to our collection. Also, many individuals donated items as well. The parts of the rescue fire truck were salvaged at the Fresh Kills Landfill and are on deposit at the Historical Society courtesy of the FBI. 

Has the museum staged other reflections on 9/11 in the past and how does this commemoration differ from others? 
Beginning in November of 2001 is when we staged our first and we’ve done dozens since then. Since the opening of the 9/11 Museum, our activity around collecting, interpreting and exhibiting around this event has really receded because the 9/11 Museum is entirely devoted to doing this and we recognize they are best equipped to do that. A number of collection items that we gathered we ended up transferring to the 9/11 Museum and several key staff members there actually came from the Historical Society, so there’s a very close tie between our two institutions.

There are so many commemorations that are going to be happening over the next month. What is the New-York Historical Society hoping to add or provide to the nationwide reflections? 
One of the things we can provide is historical context. We’re launching an audio tour of our permanent collection this month that focuses on the theme of resilience and recovery in New York. We look at 9/11, the pandemic and other events throughout history—including the Revolutionary War and the British occupation of New York, the Great Depression, the fiscal crisis of the 70s and the AIDS Epidemic. Events that at the time New Yorkers were experiencing them they were probably wondering if the city would ever be the same or rebound. I think what we can offer is the opportunity to view 9/11 through a broader, more historical lens. 

Our relationship to 9/11 within the larger context of America’s modern history and foreign policy has changed and been complicated over the past twenty years. Because of that, was there a purposeful decision to focus on certain parts of 9/11 and its legacy versus other parts? 
No, I think our impulse around this commemoration was to focus on all aspects of this event and its aftermath. So everything from the Barclays Street shrine that shows how people responded to the event, the fire truck door which is a tribute to rescue workers and those who died. We’re looking broadly at the event and not trying to dig deeply into one aspect. 

What other exhibitions can visitors look forward to at the New-York Historical Society this fall season?
One of our major exhibitions that’s opening on October 1 is Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Since New York was her hometown—she was born in Brooklyn—and a hero to many, I think that exhibition will be of great interest. We’re also opening an exhibition of Scenes of New York City that is views of the city through the late 19th century through to the 20th century and features works from Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol and other artists. And we have Art for Change that looks at the urgent problem of homelessness in the city and looks at ways, historically, that art has been used to give expression and amplify the voices of people experiencing homelessness. 

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