Tech items among museum's 9/11 relics

Smithsonian's collection of 9/11 objects includes cell phones, a BlackBerry, a laptop and the stories they tell

WASHINGTON -- It's not easy to look at the National Museum of American History's 9/11 display. Whether viewed in person or online, its contents invoke painful memories.

There's a severely damaged laptop from the Pentagon, a BlackBerry, a twisted pocket calculator, as well as the flip style cell phone used by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The museum's "Remembrance and Reflection" exhibit will end Sept. 11, while contining online.

A history of some of the items in the exhibit, along with stories about their owners, has been posted online.

The items include the beeper that belonged to Goumatie Thackurdeen, an employee at Fiduciary Trust Corp, which was housed in the 97th floor of the South tower. Goumatie was one of 87 Fiduciary Trust employees killed in the attacks.

The American History Museum is unlike typical art museums.

It often draws families and is usually filled with the sound of excited school age children. But not at the 9/11 exhibit, where the atmosphere is solemn and hushed, said Melinda Machado, the museum's director of public affairs.

And visitors are spending a lot of time there, she added.

"It's such a different experience," said Machado. "We are seeing a lot of parents with children, so they will quietly explain to them what happened and what they are seeing."

The power of the exhibit is helped by the context the Smithsonian has given some of the objects.

For instance, there's the story surrounding the then-new Ericsson flip cell phone owned by Bob Boyle. Boyle credited his difficulty finding a cell phone signal near the twin towers with saving his life.

"It was a little after 9:30 a.m. I still couldn't get a signal on my phone, so I started walking away from the area ... That stupid new cell phone of mine saved me a load of grief -- without my hunt for a network connection, I probably would have been standing at Fulton and Broadway, snapping pictures, when 2 WTC collapsed," said Boyle, according to the Smithsonian's account.

The U.S. Department of Justice telephone used by Ted Olson, the U.S. solicitor general at the time, is also there. He received two calls on that phone from his wife, Barbara Olson, who was a passenger on the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77.

There is also the Blackberry used by New York lawyer Matthew Farley, and selected transmissions saved from that day.

According to the Smithsonian's account, Farley's office was on the 89th floor of the North Tower. He used his Blackberry "to track down all sixteen of his coworkers and make sure they were safe. All of them survived."

There is a chain of text messages available for view. Excerpt: "Subject: Crash Are you all right? Phone lines are jammed."

The museum has about 350 objects from 9/11 in its collection, and about 50 are currently on display.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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