Preserving Pieces of History

Preserving Pieces of History

Alexandria Life

The scope of their projects is radically different but Bill and Jane Yeingst are both collecting and preserving a city and a nation’s memories of Sept. 11.

Jane Yeingst is an archivist with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria and Bill Yeingst is a curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. They have spent the past year collecting artifacts from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Bill’s project is mandated by Congress while Jane’s came about because the staff at the Office of Historic Alexandria thought it should be done.

“I started collecting things on Sept. 11 by saving newspapers from that day,” said Jane. “Then things just started happening so fast that I just kind of saved things like stickers that were made by the Office of Human Rights. The stickers came in all different languages and were patriotic. Also, there were brochures on handling stress and American flags that said ‘Alexandria Celebrates Diversity.’ Just lots of things.”

She also took photographs of the ways in which businesses and residents were expressing their support for the firefighters and EMS workers who were working at the Pentagon. “I told the police department and fire department what I was doing and they e-mailed me different pictures and things that they thought I might find of interest,” said Jane. “Everyone has been very helpful. It really has worked because everyone wanted to help.”

WHILE SHE WAS COLLECTING, Bill also began to collect. “Soon after the attacks on Sept. 11, a group of us got together and decided that this was a really extraordinary event in American history and would require an extraordinary effort to document it with materials from the sites,” he said.

There is now a team of curators who are responsible for collecting stories and objects to form a permanent material record of Sept. 11.

While the plans for the effort began in September, real collecting did not begin until December. “To collect you have to be part detective, part diplomat and willing to listen with respect to people’s treasured and painful recollections,” Bill said. “It’s a process of networking, negotiation, persistence and building trust.”

Bill did not know what to expect initially. “We were working with organizations that are not used to being open,” he said. “The Department of Defense, the New York Police Department, the FBI and so on. Surprisingly, most of our inquiries were met with great cooperation.”

The objects that Bill and the other curators have collected run the gamut from a piece of the limestone exterior of the Pentagon to uniforms that were worn on Sept. 11 by rescuers and those who were rescued. “These are objects that were transformed from ordinary things into things that help shape our understanding of history,” said Bill.

FROM NEW YORK, Bill obtained the camera that was used by Jules Nude to film inside the tower of the World Trade Center as well as a stairwell marker from the 102nd floor of the tower. Chief Pfeifer of the New York Fire Department gave his bunker or firefighter’s gear From the Pentagon, Bill obtained what was left of the uniform of a naval officer who was rescued and the uniforms of the two men who rescued him.

“We want the families to know that if they give us objects, we will preserve them and treat them with respect,” Bill said. “We want business cards or photographs or ID badges – anything that speaks to those who were at the World Trade Center of the Pentagon on Sept. 11.”

Bill and Jane have helped each other by sharing resources. “I am really focused on Alexandria’s response to Sept. 11 and Bill is focused on preserving objects from the sites of the attack,” said Jane.

Bill agreed. “It’s been good to talk to each other at home,” he said. “As a matter of fact, my collection efforts at the Pentagon were greatly enhanced by Jane’s boss’s father, Charles Reimer, the deputy division chief for strategic leadership at the Pentagon. He helped me to get access to many people and he donated some items himself.”

“It’s been challenging because we don’t have any perspective to understand this as an historical event,” Bill said. “We must document the event now and yet there is a need for that historical perspective.”

The city exhibit will be open from Sept. 9 through Oct. 1 in the Vola Lawson Lobby at City Hall. “We believe that the anniversary of the events of Sept. 11 is important to commemorate,” said Jean Federico, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Jane and the other members of the staff who have worked on this project have done a wonderful job. We have no plans to make this a permanent exhibit at this time but we will certainly preserve the artifacts that have been collected.”

A small exhibit of objects will open on Sept. 11 at the Museum of American History and will run through Jan. 11.