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Dakota Stevens was in fifth grade when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. He went to work as an exhibition content coordinator for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, and he is now a doctoral student in art history at the University of Delaware.

To view and witness the world

Photos courtesy of Dakota Stevens | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

A former curator for the 9/11 Museum, UD doctoral student Dakota Stevens finds hope and humanity in museums

Editor’s note: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which deeply affected — and continue to affect — the students, alumni, faculty and staff of the University of Delaware. To commemorate this milestone, UDaily asked a few members of the UD community to recall the event and reflect on what it has meant in their lives. Their stories — along with information about campus events, displays and commemorations related to 9/11 — are available at udel.edu/remembering911.

Like everyone old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001, Dakota Stevens knows exactly where he was that fateful Tuesday morning: in his fifth grade classroom, watching from a portable television as the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

But unlike most others, Stevens later had a unique vantage point on the tragedy, working as an exhibition content coordinator for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum on the site of the former World Trade Center. From 2017 to 2020, he helped tell the stories of 9/11 in a multitude of ways.

“We understand what we see,” said Stevens, now a doctoral student in UD’s curatorial track doctoral program in art history. “And museums allow us to view and witness the world.”

Among his many duties, he put together an exhibit on 3-D objects and managed a digital memorial featuring hundreds of witness and survivor testimonies. He often fielded phone calls from rescue and recovery workers, and their conversations would always remind him of the humanity within such a profound tragedy.

“We tend to think of first responders as heroes, and I think we sometimes forget that they are also people,” said Stevens. “You hear about a firefighter who went into one of the towers, and you have this image of a monolithic person who can wipe away the aftermath of health effects, post-traumatic stress, mobility issues and the worry that thousands of families felt that day. But they are people beyond their actions, and without museums, we wouldn’t know any of their stories.”

Stevens is particularly interested in the stories that go untold, including those of the Native American ironworkers who helped rebuild the Twin Towers. It was an exhibit that he helped curate, and the experience would strengthen his interest in Native American street art, ultimately leading him to UD.

Today, Stevens is studying alongside Prof. Jessica Horton, an expert in Indigenous art, and he hopes to use his doctoral education to explore the role street art plays in fostering community. He also plans to make storytelling central to his efforts. 

“Storytelling was a big component of how the 9/11 Museum tries to talk about 9/11,” he said. “They try to remove the institutional voice and let other people’s experiences be the main focus. During my time at UD, I hope to continue growing my understanding of curation as a form of storytelling while developing research skills in art history that will ensure that I don’t privilege my voice above those with whom I conduct my research.”   

Such an approach only aids the role of a museum itself.

“Museums allow voices to come together to tell a cohesive story,” said Stevens. “They give us a perspective that we might not take on our own. They expose us to a world that is vast beyond our own. That’s what the 9/11 Museum does, and 9/11 is everyone’s story.”

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