Remnants of a catastrophe

An in­cin­er­ated and twis­ted com­puter key­board. A melted and mis­shapen met­al tray. They’re part of a mu­seum ex­hib­it of or­din­ary items that be­came ex­traordin­ary in the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pieces of lost lives.

To com­mem­or­ate the 10th an­niversary of the Sept. 11 at­tacks, the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania has put to­geth­er an ex­hib­it of items re­covered from the rubble of the World Trade Cen­ter in New York.

In Ex­cav­at­ing Ground Zero: Frag­ments from 9/11 at the Penn Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ology and An­thro­po­logy, you can find some of the or­din­ary ac­couter­ments of life trans­formed by the events of a day so many of us still find dif­fi­cult to de­scribe.

The World Trade Cen­ter’s twin towers were tour­ist at­trac­tions and of­fice build­ings, and like so many such struc­tures, they were filled with people who worked at com­puters on their desks.

One of the 15 WTC ar­ti­facts on dis­play at the mu­seum through Nov. 6 is a com­puter key­board — one mangled and melted in the tragedy that claimed more than 2,600 lives and trans­formed the last 10 years of our his­tory.

There are oth­er rel­ics: a stair­well sign, dic­tion­ary pages, a vis­it­or’s badge, a broken pair of glasses, a twis­ted loud­speak­er and Christ­mas or­na­ments.

They are every­day items from a mo­ment in time when “every­day” was so much dif­fer­ent than “every­day” 10 years later.

Con­sider how life has changed dur­ing the past dec­ade. There are no-fly lists for air travel, in­form­a­tion is shared between gov­ern­ment jur­is­dic­tions, and even get­ting in­to a pub­lic build­ing re­quires passing through met­al de­tect­ors.

All the ob­jects in the ex­hib­it were col­lec­ted by the Na­tion­al Septem­ber 11 Me­mori­al & Mu­seum, which will open on the site of the World Trade Cen­ter on Sept. 11, 2012, said Kate Quinn, the de­sign­er of Penn’s ex­hib­it.

“They tell the story of that time,” she said, won­der­ing how the items will be viewed dec­ades from now by people who might not un­der­stand what they are.

Vari­ous 911 ob­jects bound for the New York mu­seum are on dis­play at nine sites around the world, Quinn said. They were col­lec­ted by an­thro­po­lo­gists at the WTC site and turned over to New York po­lice, who tried to re­turn them to their right­ful own­ers or their fam­il­ies, Quinn said. The items in the ex­hib­it have not been traced to any one per­son, she ad­ded.

“Every ef­fort was made to get things back,” she said.

A com­puter key­board is, and was, a com­mon ob­ject. The one on dis­play at Penn is so con­tor­ted that some people can’t re­cog­nize it im­me­di­ately, Quinn said.

“Then, they be­gin to make out the keys on the left-hand side,” she said. 

Quinn was amazed that some of the oth­er items were in such good shape. Dic­tion­ary pages, for ex­ample, sur­vived the plane crash, ex­plo­sion, fire and even­tu­al build­ing col­lapse.

Quinn said she had worked on the ex­hib­it for sev­er­al months be­fore the items ar­rived for dis­play. Be­fore that, she was cata­loging and work­ing on the ex­hib­it’s slide show, look­ing at im­ages from the day now re­garded as the na­tion’s darkest.

“I was sit­ting at my desk, just cry­ing,” she said. “For me, when the ob­jects came in, they were so much more power­ful.”

In the mu­seum, there is a blank wall on which vis­it­ors can write their com­ments and share their memor­ies of 9/11.

Quinn said two people who worked at the World Trade Cen­ter wrote on the wall. One, she said, had gone to work but got out early. An­oth­er, very luck­ily, had de­cided not to go in on Sept. 11, 2001.

Some uni­versity stu­dents who see the ex­hib­it were very young in 2001, Quinn said.

“They don’t know what the world was like be­fore.”

The mu­seum is at 3260 South St., and ad­mis­sion will be free this Sunday, the an­niversary date of the ter­ror at­tacks. There will be lec­tures on the his­tory of the twin towers, start­ing at 1 p.m., fol­lowed by a 3 p.m. read­ing of scenes from Cato, a 1713 play about the fall of the Ro­man re­pub­lic to Caesar’s tyranny, as a cata­lyst for a pan­el dis­cus­sion of the last­ing im­pact of 9/11.

 An­oth­er free-ad­mis­sion day is sched­uled on Wed­nes­day, Oct. 12. At 6 p.m. that day, a New York State Mu­seum cur­at­or will talk about the nature of re­triev­ing ob­jects from the WTC site. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

Somber an­niversary …

The Penn Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ology and An­thro­po­logy is open Tues­days and Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Wed­nes­days from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.  It is closed Mondays and hol­i­days.

Ad­mis­sion is $10 for adults; $7 for seni­or cit­izens; $6 for chil­dren ages 6 to 17, and for full-time stu­dents with IDs; and free to mem­bers, Pen­nCard hold­ers and chil­dren 5 and young­er. Ad­mis­sion is “pay what you want”  dur­ing the last hour be­fore clos­ing.

For more in­form­a­tion, call 215-898-4000. ••

You can reach at

comments powered by Disqus