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Last modified: Monday, November 30, 2009

Presentation to explore importance of objects and memory after 9/11, other disasters

Nov. 30, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A keepsake two-dollar bill in a man's wallet. A firefighter's battered helmet. A sister's favorite handbag. Everyday objects, they became something more when retrieved from the ruins of the World Trade Center towers.

baseball and rose image

Courtesy of The Objects and Memory Project

Filmmaker Jonathan Fein will examine how people invest such ordinary objects with deep personal meaning in the aftermath of catastrophes in a presentation Tuesday (Dec. 1) at Indiana University. The illustrated lecture, "Objects and Memory: Identity and Material Culture after 9/11," will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Georgian Room of the Indiana Memorial Union. It is free and open to the public.

"My work involves looking at how otherwise ordinary things become transformed and take on meaning that transcends their original existence," Fein said. "It's about the things that are important to us in our homes and museums because of associations they have with people and events."

Fein is producer, director and editor of Objects and Memory, a film that shows people preserving and treasuring objects to memorialize the past, make sense of emotion and find hope for the future.

A sculptor who has long been interested in the relationship between the tangible and intangible, Fein noticed after 9/11 that historians and curators were working to record history as it happened. He began filming them as they struggled to anticipate what future generations would value. At the same time, people from all walks of life felt compelled to preserve resonant objects or bring offerings to sites of remembrance.

In addition to the 9/11 attacks, the film examined the way in which objects came to be placed at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The film, with narration by Frank Langella and music by Philip Glass, was the PBS national prime-time special on the seventh anniversary of 9/11. The project has expanded to include an educational component that explores the importance of objects and memory. Fein also is writing a book that brings together what he has learned in eight years of working on the topic.

His presentation at IU will include footage shot for the film and edited into thematic segments dealing with how people recognize history, how they respond to important events and how they imbue ordinary objects with significance.

"With a project like this, you start doing it because you have a gut sense that something is important but you don't know why," Fein said. "And years later, you begin to understand why the original response was worth following. People say to me, 'What's your next film?' Well, I haven't really finished this project. I still have questions I'm asking and questions I'm eliciting in others."

The presentation is sponsored by the Horizons of Knowledge lecture series, the Journal of American History, the American Studies Program, the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of Communication and Culture. For information on the Objects and Memory project, see