Physical evidence is the building blocks of history. The historian can design the arrangements of these to create a certain presentation: what the shape of the structure will be (comedy, monograph, etc), how large will it be, how will your audience view it, etc. It’s like putting Legos together to make a model. You can take the same little shapes and make a variety of different items from them, but in the end, you aren’t making anything without those little pieces. Everything else may be the artist’s creation — except these.
Ironically, over time, we lose these concrete historical bits that connect us to past events. For the most part, we no longer have the arsenal from World War I (although we have bits of it) or the tableware of medieval peasants or the knives that struck down Caesar. There is something so connecting about being able to have contact with the same items that our ancestors used. I really was in awe in visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to see the collection of items he touched and especially those he had collected of Gandhi’s. I was looking at the very same fabric that the Great Soul touched. I felt a special connection to someone I so valued at that moment. It’s a momentous feeling. But, for all the artifacts we still have, there are so many we have lost.
What happens to this evidence? History, mostly. Time passes; people die; items get left, destroyed, forgotten. That’s why it’s so vital that we make a record of these things. We must document them as best we can — with photographs, pictures, descriptions, reports — so we have the confirmation of the thing, if not the thing itself. After that, after we have the historical record preserved so that we will always have it for future historians to use, the loss of it is more tolerable. The thing’s history becomes its own.
For example, recently the gun shop owner who sold Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh the Glock pistol with which he was arrested after fleeing the scene of his crime resold the weapon. Apparently, the government returned it to him (Why? He was no longer the legal owner if he sold it to McVeigh, correct?), and he sold it to a collector. There seems to be something disturbing and revolting about someone wanting to own the gun of a famed terrorist. Why would you want that connection to a mass murderer and traitor? He’s no hero. Why hold the tool of the monster in awe? Yet, it has become an infamous item — valued and sought of itself. It has its own history — one that extends past the event of the bombing.
In a sense, it has no place in a museum, particularly at the memorial museum. There, we honor the victims, the sacrifice of the rescue workers, the grief of those of us left behind. We want no remembrance of McVeigh there. We will not add to his infamy there. We will not give him that — the twisted heroism he wanted. It is a place to promote peace and reject the violence that made the memorial a necessity for us. Even if that gun did not kill, it is the gun of a killer. It is better that this item pass from our national collection to whatever individuals can show our compatriots lost this dishonor. As a people, we want no part of that.