Ordinary objects take on new meaning in 9-11 exhibit

Sunday, May 22, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was a day that began at a desk, on an elevator, washing the windows. Ordinary.

It is appropriate, then, that the most powerful pieces of the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit "September 11: Bearing Witness to History" are not the familiar images of that Tuesday morning. They are the everyday objects given new meaning by tragedy.

The beige Nortel office phone -- an orange hold button, a yellow mute -- could be in anyone's cubicle. But Ted Olson picked it up Sept. 11, 2001, to hear his wife's horrifying words: "Our plane is being hijacked."

A pair of black, open-toe slip-ons. Maria Cecilia Benavente had to take them off to escape the World Trade Center's north tower.

A jagged shell of melted metal. It looks like a piece of abstract art. It is the remains of a file cabinet recovered from the trade center.

"Just in that one piece of crumpled steel, it tells you so much about the devastation of that day," said Kathleen Kendrick, a Smithsonian curator involved with the exhibit.

"Bearing Witness" opened at Kansas City's Union Station on Saturday, its sixth stop on a nationwide tour. Since its opening in Washington -- where more than 1 million people passed through in its 10 months at the National Museum of American History -- it has continued to draw people looking for another perspective of that horrifying day. It is nearing the end of its tour, staying here through Aug. 14, then making one last stop in Lexington, Mass., before returning to the Smithsonian.

The exhibit could easily be walked through in a half-hour or so, but it can be powerful.

It is the simple, everyday pieces that stand out, but visitors get a taste of all manner of Sept. 11 relics: a section of a steel column from the trade center, a few of the thousands of items left in memorial at the site of the plane crash near Shanksville, Pa., a chipped and charred piece of the Pentagon's limestone facade.

At its end, those who come can view television footage from the day and visit four electronic stations that offer various testimonies from people affected by the tragedy.

Particularly moving are the answering machine messages left that Tuesday morning. One desperate woman's voice cries: "I just need to know that you're OK, sweetheart, so just call me."

As visitors exit, they can write down their memories of the day.

"I was driving to work," one person recalls. "It was my day off," writes another.

On a walk. In the car. Off to school.


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