Interns 2013

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Memorial archivists weave together Oklahoma City bombing's historical narrative

Ben Luschen Modified: August 2, 2013 at 5:45 pm •  Published: July 29, 2013

In concept, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, between its enormous 9:01 and 9:03 Gates, is designed to take visitors back into the moment a bomb exploded April 19, 1995 outside the AlfredP.MurrahFederalBuilding.

No one realizes this more than Pam Bell and Helen Stiefmiller, who run the museum archives together.

“Everyday we live it, you know,” Bell said. “You’re touching the bombing residue or the parts or you’re touching people’s clothes or seeing the photographs that people took of the event.”

Bell and Stiefmiller have both been working in the archives for about six years. Bell, though a native of Chicago, had been living in Oklahoma for nearly 20 years at the time of the attack.

She still remembers being in her east Edmond home as the vibrations rose from the floor and rattled her windows like an earthquake.

“Immediately I knew that it was a bomb, just because of the timing of it,” she said.

At that moment, things changed forever. Everyday items became artifacts, and the museum has tried its best to collect and document as much of it as it can.

Stiefmiller estimates the museum and archives have collected nearly a million individual pieces, which are mostly housed in an on-site, storage exhibit. The display is open to prearranged touring.

The collection includes more than 300,000 print images and around 70,000 items left on the fence outside the memorial.

Bell and Stiefmiller collect items from the fence around four times a year.

A wide variety of objects find their way onto the fence. Items were left there after 9/11 and when soldiers left for Afghanistan.

“The fence has kind of become a sounding board for national events,” Stiefmiller said.

Inside the storage room, shelves are lined to the ceiling with heavy hunks of twisted metal, flags, photos and boxes of fence items with labels like “Mardi Gras beads,” “key chains” and “pacifiers.” Near the back are boxes of hand-drawn cards sent after bombing from schools around the country.

“I hope you get well soon. Your friend, Jake,” one reads.

The memorial museum is unique, Stiefmiller said, because unlike other museums that remember already established histories, this story is still developing.

“It gives us a chance to tell how they felt from an emotional side,” Stiefmiller said, “because so often history is portrayed in such a sterile, kind of monotone way, but there’s so much more to history.”

Helen Stiefmiller shows off old FBI evidence in the bombing museum's archives on Monday, July 1, 2013. Photo by Aliki Dyer/The Oklahoman
Helen Stiefmiller shows off old FBI evidence in the bombing museum's archives on Monday, July 1, 2013. Photo by Aliki Dyer/The Oklahoman
Pam Bell, left, and Helen Stiefmiller tell stories about objects and their significance with the Murrah bombing at the museum's archives on Monday, July 1, 2013. Photo by Aliki Dyer/The Oklahoman
Pam Bell, left, and Helen Stiefmiller tell stories about objects and their significance with the Murrah bombing at the museum's archives on Monday, July 1, 2013. Photo by Aliki Dyer/The Oklahoman

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