Hope Springs Eternal

A touching exhibit of missing-persons posters that sprang up after 9/11

Downtown Manhattan was uncharacteristically peaceful and quiet on the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Traffic was at a lull, taxis were empty, and typically obnoxious New Yorkers were politely cautious, dazed and confused. Except for Ground Zero and the immediate vicinity of various trauma centers, the normally bustling sidewalks were practically deserted, save for random pockets where small crowds gathered to stare in shock and despair at the missing-person fliers that had cropped up overnight. Although the impromptu tributes were not art, we crowded around them as if they were. Of the approximately 90,000 posters lining walls, store windows, and train stations and sprouting from lampposts, ATM machines, and phone booths, 200 have been collected and framed to comprise a traveling exhibition, "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,"which also includes photographs of the posters blanketing the city and an installation duplicating the wall of St. Vincent's Hospital.

Funded by the Mexican human rights group Mesoamerica and curated by economist and author Louis Nevaer, who initiated the effort to preserve the posters before they were destroyed or thrown away, "Missing" marks the first time these fliers will be shown outside New York. The international show makes its first stops in the Golden State before touring the U.S. and then traveling to Costa Rica, Mexico, England, and Japan. "Considering that all four airliners hijacked were en route to [the West Coast], we believe it is a duty to bring these fliers to the people of California," explains Mesoamerica's director, Raquel Romero.

Like the poignant photographs on milk cartons, these hastily assembled posters are last-ditch attempts at hope for families missing loved ones, imparting a chilling reality to the disturbing statistics. Most of the small leaflets were created in response to rumors that victims were lost in crowded emergency rooms or wandering the streets with amnesia. They are a testament to the fact that people turn to the simplest forms of communication when they need to, walking the streets with their posters in the hopes that someone would recognize the face printed on a piece of paper and give them a lead on their loved one's whereabouts.

Fliers from "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001" bring the painful reality of 9/11 home.
Fliers from "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001" bring the painful reality of 9/11 home.
Fliers from "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001" bring the painful reality of 9/11 home.
Fliers from "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001" bring the painful reality of 9/11 home.

Many of the fliers -- enlarged black-and-white or color photographs bearing the victim's name, physical description, place of work, and contact information -- still have tape stuck to their edges. Faded and worn by the rain and wind, they are conspicuously free of graffiti -- an unusual outcome for any piece of paper posted in public in Manhattan. After two years of touring, the exhibit and accompanying condolence books (available for visitors to sign and leave messages) will be preserved in a joint effort by the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of New York as historical documents.

 
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