As director of the Center for Women’s History, I am asked from time to time about which woman in history inspires me the most. But the question misunderstands our guiding premise: to push back against the idea of replacing a pantheon of great men with great women. We do not play favorites in our mission to amplify our understanding of history by integrating the stories of women of all stripes into the narrative of the past. There are so many exceptional women who have walked the earth and will never make it into the history books. Their legacies might be unremarkable in larger terms, but are no less meaningful to the people whose lives they touched.
Much in the same way, when asked if I have a favorite object in the New-York Historical Society’s collections, my quick answer would have to be no. There are way too many important works of art, documents, and items of material culture to choose from: the portrait of an unidentified 18th-century woman, once thought to be the British governor of New York, Lord Cornbury; the original, one-of-a-kind 19th-century Audubon watercolors which are reproduced on the valuable prints we know so well; the pen-to-paper letters exchanged by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the days leading up to their duel in 1804; the on-the-job photographs documenting the building of the New York City subway a century later; a significant piece of the metal balustrade fencing that graced the balcony of Federal Hall, behind which George Washington waved to the crowds following his inauguration as president in 1789; and myriad items of similar significance spanning the centuries. I could go on, and on, and on.
Objects tell stories, as we assert in our Henry Luce III Center on the 4th floor of our Museum on Central Park West. There, on view, the individual items that we collect—both the valuable and the ephemeral—can represent so much and bear witness to a time and place. In that regard, and in the context of the current moment of COVID-19, these days I find myself drawn to one object in particular that hangs in that permanent gallery: a mangled Venetian blind recovered from a New York City treetop in late September 2001.
Three days after September 11, the brand-new president of New-York Historical at the time, Columbia University history professor Kenneth T. Jackson, called an all-staff meeting of curators, librarians, administrators, and security and maintenance personnel. He reasoned that since the police and firefighters still had to get up in the morning and do their work, it should be no different for historians or curators. So he enlisted the staff to capture history as it was happening. In so doing, he surmised, they might help move the 200-year-old institution’s collections into the 21st century by gathering the artifacts of the disaster that were littering the streets of the city. Perhaps he was naïve to think that people working under the banner of the Historical Society could just scoop up stuff and deposit it at the Museum, but that’s what he did. The enduring History Responds initiative was born.
In hindsight, it seems perfectly sensible: to recognize a historic moment as it was unfolding and to galvanize forces to preserve it for posterity. But at the time, it flew in the face of professional best practices. Perhaps it still does. By what accounting do current events become “history”? How many years does it take for the present to take on the sepia patina of the past and to qualify as something momentous enough to be memorialized in a history museum? Jackson was willing to stake his reputation as a historian to affirm that what happened on September 11, 2001, would make the cut.
While some staff members balked, others found his resolve inspirational. Early the next week, one relatively new member of the curatorial team, Amy Weinstein, accompanied Jackson downtown to a meeting at St. Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero. They discussed the logistics with other stakeholders of what it might take to start collecting not only the posters and memorial shrines that were already being affixed to the church’s fence, but also the detritus from the attack that had rendered lower Manhattan an unrecognizable, apocalyptic landscape. After the meeting, Jackson was drawn to the eerie quiet of the church’s backyard cemetery, scattered with papers and covered in the ash that permeated the air. Moved viscerally and visually, he returned there soon thereafter to show his wife, Barbara, and his pastor the melancholy 18th-century graveyard in the shadow of where the twin towers had stood only days before. Spying something strange and sculptural-looking in a tree, he realized it had once been a window blind. With the collapse of the towers, tons of steel, glass, and concrete had been pulverized, along with everything within. Clearly this thing was catapulted from the World Trade Center before the buildings were eviscerated.
After climbing up to retrieve it, Jackson spirited the treasure back to the Museum on the subway. It then sat in a storage area in a box, affixed with a note that read, “This is an artifact. It is not garbage.” Jackson later wrote, “I felt then, and I do now, that a little twisted Venetian blind could tell the horror of that day just as well as could a ton of twisted structural steel.”
These days, as we shelter in place and ponder the strange and empty streets of the city, many of us are reminded of September 11, the last time we came together to face the unspeakable impact of collective trauma and death. Those of us who were alive then all have stories of where we were, what we felt, and what was lost when the towers fell. Almost two decades on, we might recall those feelings of shock and despair, along with the memories of hope, resilience, and perseverance that kept us going. For me, that misshapen, destroyed window blind carries the power to summon up that time, and to remind me that we lived to tell the tale.
Written by Valerie Paley, director of the Center for Women’s History and chief historian of the New-York Historical Society
Learn more about our History Responds program here and read our guidelines for submitting objects and documents.