IPI Visit to the 9/11 Collection at the New York State Museum

In April, IPI staff Daniel Burge and Douglas Nishimura visited the New York State Museum in Albany, NY (NYSM) to examine its collection of 9/11 artifacts and determine if, and what portion, was created using digital printing. The year 2001 was a point in the evolution of digital printing where all of the primary digital printing technologies were readily available and in use, including dye sublimation, inkjet, and digital electrophotography (laser printing). Their popularity as computer output and office copying made them the dominant type of single copy and small run printing of the day.

During the visit we found that the materials in the NYSM 9/11 collection could be broadly grouped as those that were from the buildings themselves when they were destroyed, those that were created and placed around the city immediately following the attacks, and those that were produced later as memorials. While the types of artifacts in the collection are greatly varied, our focus was on printed materials.

Connie Frisbee Houde, of Research and Collections, showed us many examples of objects that might have been digitally printed. Printed objects retrieved from the sites from the building debris were primarily digital electrophotography. As expected many of these were severely damaged having been torn, crumpled, or partially burnt.

Objects made in memorial after the attacks were more diverse in origin and included examples made by digital electrophotography, inkjet, and digitally printed chromogenic. Many of these were also created in mixed media formats including collage and albums/scrapbooks containing multiple processes.

The largest group of objects we viewed was those that were created immediately after the event. Most were posters of the missing created by family and friends of those lost and placed across the city to gain information on their loved ones. These posters are our nation’s permanent record of the faces and names of those who perished. They are found in most cultural heritage institutions that have received 9/11 materials including the New York State Museum, The 9/11 Memorial Museum, the New York Historical Society, and others. Identifying the printing process used to produce these materials was sometimes difficult as many objects were themselves copies. For example a poster may have been originally created on an inkjet printer but then massed produced on a laser copier, or even offset lithography. This made identification by image forming structures at the microscopic level difficult. A good understanding of multiple tell-tale signs for each process is necessary.

Many of the posters and other artifacts, such as the poem on the right, were damaged having suffered the vicissitudes of being outdoors in the city for extended periods while on original display. The types of damage seen included light fade, yellowing, bleed due to exposure to water, and even tramping under foot. Of additional concern was the dust from the collapsed towers and other buildings that cover many of these objects. These additional destructive forces have made the objects chemically very different than digitally printed objects in other collections made with these same technologies and that have not suffered such extreme additional damage during use. They contain the chemistries of their original printing papers and colorants but also, and most dramatically, those of the harsh environments they were subsequently subjected to. This will make their preservation all the more difficult.

The staff at the museum had clearly put a significant amount of work into cataloging and carefully housing the objects. It was impressive how quickly specific items could be found, though an awareness of digital process and their unique vulnerabilities was lacking. This is true, however, at most institutions and not just this museum. Many objects were cataloged as “computer output” as opposed to the more specific type of output such as inkjet, etc. To help address this, we gave a short presentation on the history, technology, identification, and preservation of these materials to several of the staff from multiple departments within the museum. We feel that in the long run, the lessons learned about these special collections were just as valuable for us as they were for them.

This collection is available to researchers. Interested parties should contact the museum. They can be found on the web at: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/

“As we get further and further away, our responsibility grows of preserving the memory of the individuals that did not make it.”
                   - Keating Crown – World Trade Center survivor – 100th floor of the South Tower