Barbara Black calls the youngest visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial “keepers of the story” and “caretakers of our nation's history.”
Their impressions of the nation's newest national park and its story are the focus of a temporary exhibit she curated, the first at the site's newly opened Learning Center.
“Through Their Eyes” will include about 50 items, from stuffed animals to toys to drawings, that children have left at the Somerset County site since the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
The exhibit will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in March.
“This is close to my heart, as a mother and a grandmother, and having taken care of these items for so long,” said Black, the site's chief of cultural resources.
The park tells the story of United Airlines Flight 93's 40 passengers and crew, some of whom fought with terrorist hijackers for control of the plane before it plummeted to the ground near Shanksville.
They are credited with preventing the plane from striking a target in Washington.
Soon after 9/11, visitors by the thousands began making pilgrimages to the site. A chain link fence at the temporary memorial was quickly covered with license plates, flags, photos and other memorabilia.
Many children who gazed out on the open field left behind a token to express their feelings, from sadness at the loss of life to gratitude for the actions of the passengers and first responders.
“Children are very honest. ... They don't have to be politically correct. They really say what's on their minds. Some of their messages reveal that,” Black said.
Stuffed animals, trinkets dug from their pockets, notes and pictures scribbled in crayon were tucked into the fence's lower rings or laid on the ground.
Black began to collect and preserve visitors' tributes in 2001, while she was employed with the Somerset Historical Center. She has worked for the National Park Service since 2004.
“Children are very attached to objects. They give them characteristics. They become friends with them,” she said. “I've seen children leave some things they have been carrying around for some time as tributes. They are saddened, and give good wishes to what they consider to be heroes on that plane. For them to leave a treasured item, it's very emotional.
“This is a very modest exhibit. There is so much to choose from, I could have filled several buildings.”
Included will be some items on loan from the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, the closest first responders at the scene on 9/11.
“There are some interesting ways they (children) expressed what firefighters do, and the gratitude they feel for them,” Black said.
Children also can visit the Discovery Table, which offers hands-on and educational activities.
Black, who plans to retire in April, called the exhibit her “last hurrah.”
“This is the last thing I really have time to do,” she said.
The Learning Center and its technology will be used for training, conferences, class field trips and distance learning.
“We hope that ‘Through Their Eyes' will be the first of many temporary exhibits,” said Stephen Clark, superintendent of the five National Parks of Western Pennsylvania.
There is no fee to tour the display. Children must be accompanied by an adult.