Whether it’s a rescue from a frigid winter evening or a family heirloom, quilts have always been a way to provide warmth and comfort. To the International Quilt Museum, they are more than just stitched cloth; they are pieces of history. One collection of history displayed right now commemorates the tragic 9/11 attacks.
Carolyn Ducey, a curator of the collection, has been with the museum since its founding in 1997. Ducey said quilts are more than the typical vision of providing warmth, as they provide an outlet for artistic expression.
“These artists are really using this as a platform for a social condition,” Ducey said. “They really feel like they need to bring attention to it, and it is incredibly powerful.”
For the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the museum, located off N 33rd and Holdrege streets, put together a collection called “Trying to Make Sense of It: 9/11, Loss, and Memorial Quilts.”
Jonathan Gregory has been with the museum since 2010 and served as the curator for this exhibition. Gregory said in an email he’s been planning the 20th-anniversary exhibition with internal and external advisors since 2015, when the significant panels became a part of their collection.
The International Quilt Museum is open to the public with free admission for all members of the UNL community. Gregory will lead a public tour in special observance of the 20th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. The exhibition will be on display until Oct. 16.
The quilt was created by Corey Gammel and Peter Marquez from California. A few weeks after the attacks, the two visited ground zero, where they were inspired to create an organization to form the “United in Memory 9/11 Victims Memorial Quilt”. Gregory said the collection consists of 143 panels, measuring 10 feet by 10 feet. Nine of these panels are currently on display at the Lincoln quilt museum, while the other 134 panels are currently headed to New York City to be displayed in Staten Island.
According to the museum’s website, 3,600 volunteers from 18 different countries sent in pieces representing each of the 2,977 victims. Ducey said some of the pieces were made from surviving family members, friends or people who caught word of the quilt being created.
“The [quilt blocks] are all done in very separate ways, and they have a really personal link to the individual that they’re honoring,” Ducey said.
Each panel includes 25 separate blocks honoring each person who lost their life in the 9/11 attacks.
When the museum originally received the panels six years ago, Ducey said, they found one box damp. They unpacked the box to ensure the panel was undamaged.
“We laid it out on the table, and the very first block we saw had the Nebraska Cornhuskers emblem on it,” Ducey said. “That was just eerie almost to have that happen.”
The block was created for Paul Robert Eckna, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and past football player, who was killed in the attacks while working in the World Trade Center.
Gregory said millions of Americans have been born since the terrorist attacks, and they haven’t processed the tragedy like those who were alive.
“In ‘Trying to Make Sense of It,’ the individual names inscribed on the massive panels of the ‘United in Memory 9/11 Victims Memorial Quilt’ allow visitors to learn about the magnitude of loss, but do so at a very personal level,” Gregory said.
Although only a select few of the panels are selected for the display each year, a kiosk is available in the exhibition to allow visitors to search for different blocks by name. All of the quilts, including the 9/11 panels, at the museum are also available to see on their website along with written information.
In addition to the 9/11 memorial panels, Ducey said the exhibition is also being used to address different issues, such as the Holocaust, civil rights, missing Indigenous women, World War I, AIDS and COVID-19.
“Throughout history, quilts have been used in this way,” Ducey said. “They’re used to kind of commemorate grief. They’re used to be a symbol of love, of memory, of honoring an individual. But they’re also used in a social and cultural way to really express things.”
Following the loss of service members in Kabul, Afghanistan; Ducey said Americans are still dealing with the results of 9/11.
“I really believe that history teaches us a lot and history gives us lessons and just cultivating an understanding of history and life in general is really important,” she said. “So I think if people come in and just soak it in, I don’t think they can help but be touched by it. I think especially right now with the sacrifice that so many of our armed services are giving, that really hit me hard.”
Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan William-Tyeler Page, 23, of Omaha was one of the 13 U.S. service members killed in the Kabul airport attacks.
“Some of the men who died weren’t even alive at 9/11 or were just babies during 9/11, and yet they were willing to fight for that cause, and I think more than even fighting for the cause, I think they just feel a great dedication to their nation,” Ducey said. “It’s a good thing to come in here and take a few minutes and think about that because we get so wrapped up in our personal lives.”
Ducey said 9/11 was an event that will always remain vivid in her mind because of how everyday life in America changed.
“Right after 9/11, the U.S. came together in a really unique way,” she said. “And that kind of shared humanity was really touching. I think that’s another thing that you’d hope people would remember, that it would take you back to that time where you really did have that sense of being one, one culture, one nation.”
Ducey said she worries that with time, the anniversaries of tragic events such as 9/11 tend to get lost, so she thinks it’s important to have lasting memorials such as the quilts so people don’t forget.
“I think it was really important for us to show that quilts are something that are not something that lives in the past,” Ducey said. “I think this shows the greater way that they function for the people who make them and for the people who are given them, or even just experience them in our galleries. And I think this is a really, really meaningful show for that reason.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Sept. 2 at 12:07 p.m. to change the word "help" to "hope" in a quote.