A decade after 9/11, what have we learned? As this transformative event becomes part of the tapestry of history, we can see basic human truths: how we respond to momentous circumstances, what is most important when times are uncertain, and what we hold dear. The documentary film Objects and Memory depicts experiences in the aftermath of 9/11 and other major historic events to reveal how, in times of stress, we join together in community and see otherwise ordinary things as symbols of identity, memory and aspiration. In its exploration of people preserving the past and speaking to the future, Objects and Memory invites us to think about the fundamental nature of human interaction.
The project emerged from the New York-based filmmakers’ personal need to understand human responses to the 9/11 tragedy and evolved into a documentary film and related educational initiative. Never before had so many historically significant items been produced so suddenly, and curators were faced with the struggle of anticipating what future generations would consider valuable. At the same time, people from all walks of life felt compelled to preserve resonant objects or bring offerings to sites of remembrance.
Narrated by Frank Langella, with music by Philip Glass, Objects and Memory traces the actions and motivations of these people and relates stories of the objects' symbolic transformation. The film weaves together narratives of those directly affected by the trauma of 9/11 with interviews of those driven to recover objects of personal or historical value. Vérité scenes from the aftermath of 9/11 in New York and behind-the-scenes footage of the recovery effort paint an evocative portrait of how everyday objects become treasured possessions following a life-altering disaster.
Simple objects recovered from Ground Zero — ID cards, keys, a firefighter's helmet — become resonant conveyors of meaning through their connection to the traumatic event. When returned to the family members of victims, these ordinary objects help them renew connections with loved ones and find healing from their loss. In offerings left at memorial sites, everyday items such as teddy bears, work boots, artwork, and insignia patches express empathy and evoke shared recollections of emotional experiences.
Why do people associate thoughts and feelings with tangible symbols, and how is it that such ordinary objects become so important? What is it that transforms and elevates these things? In the film, authors, archivists, museum curators, experts from academia, and members of police and fire rescue teams offer insight into the human need to affirm community and continuity in the face of upheaval. These perspectives shed light on the process of building and retaining memories through inanimate objects — both in the retrieving of personal effects of the deceased and in the placing of symbolic tokens at the site of a tragedy.
Objects and Memory also explores the need to keep and offer meaningful objects in the context of other traumatic national events and memorials: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. These experiences help illustrate how personal and collective memories are triggered by objects that have journeyed through time and space.
In presenting meaningful physical symbols — those that speak, those that reach out, and those that heal — and their stories in the unusually dramatic setting of their retrieval, Objects and Memory is ultimately about the things we value most. Without the objects, the stories would lack vibrancy; without the stories, the objects would lack significance. Taken together, the images of the objects, the memories they evoke and the stories of their collection take the viewer on a journey where the commonplace is transformed into the remarkable and where the stuff of history is highly personalized.