Melanie Derschowitz’s life remains connected to her sense of touch. The Oyster Bay Historical Society’s new collections manager spends her days working with databases, but her job also includes preserving and protecting artifacts, which involves touching them. If that isn’t done correctly, the items, often the only avenue left to understanding our past, can be damaged or destroyed.
“What’s unique here [at OBHS] is that the items are older, and there’s a greater need to preserve and protect them for the future,” said Derschowitz, 29. Wearing protective gloves, she arranged a few glass plate negatives, which she plans to digitalize, document and, after remeasuring them, rehouse them for preservation. “They’re all a piece of history,” she said. “Mary Cooper’s diary from the Colonial period, for example, is an incredible piece of history that I don’t even want to hold — it’s that fragile.”
Derschowitz, who’s from Ocean-side, began working at the historical society on May 22. She brought with her much experience from her work at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan, where she began working as an associate cataloguer in September 2012, six months after graduating with a master’s in museum studies from the University of Toronto. The museum opened in May 2014.
Before it could open, there was much work to be done documenting and preserving the objects that would become part of the exhibits.
“It was my first big job out of school, and I’d been nervous about working at the memorial museum at first, because I was afraid the artifacts would be too difficult emotionally to engage with,” Derschowitz explained. “If I didn't take this job, I wouldn't have the full understanding of how impactful 9/11 was on New York City and the world. But it ended up being the most unique experience.”
The museum received items from several organizations, including the restaurant Windows on the World, which donated menus. The families of victims also donated items.
Because so much of her work is hands-on, Derschowitz began to feel a connection with the victims, especially when handling familiar items, like donated T-shirts, photographs, key chains, watches and wallets.
Each day was different, as she worked to prepare the museum for public viewing. But there was one day she said she will never forget.
“I was looking at photographs, and one was of a high school scoreboard dedicated to a victim from Sept. 11,” she said. “I recognized the scoreboard, and realized it was my high school scoreboard from Oceanside High School. It was one of the first surprises I had. Eleven people from my town died on Sept. 11.”
She found that the items that were recovered from ground zero were difficult for her to handle, emotionally.
She was in middle school on Sept. 11, 2001, and didn’t know anyone who died that day. Derschowitz was beginning to see for the first time the depth of the tragedy. “Working in the museum opened my eyes as to how much of an impact Sept. 11 had on New York and the world,” she said. “We’re still learning about it even today.”
The objects from ground zero served as a reminder, an ugly wake-up call of sorts, that the victims were much more than numbers. “Wallets with cards, a driver’s license, coins, receipts of varying degrees of intactness created a small window into a person's life,” she said. “I believe there were banks in World Trade Center 5. Coins were recovered from safe deposit boxes, damaged by the fire so much so that they were rusted and had lost their shape.”
Then she was given something to document that made the tragedy even more real. “I held plane parts for the first time,” she said. “It was a jaw-dropping moment, and it made an incredible impression on me.”
During a portion of the time that she was at the museum, the building was under construction. Wearing a hard hat, she helped oversee the installations of the artifacts.
“One of the first things that went up was the audio recordings,” she said. “They were playing it on a loop while we were working, and that was difficult to hear. People were talking about situations in the towers, and you hear the first responders from the subway, too.”
“People still tell me they aren’t ready to go to the museum when they hear I worked there,” said Derschowitz, adding that she understands. “The experience of working there was unique in itself, because how often do you get to work at a museum before it opens?”
Oyster Bay Historical Society Director Phillip Blocklyn is pleased that Derschowitz was hired. “She comes from a museum background,” he said. “In the past, the staff has come from a library background. It will be nice to have her different point of view here.”
Blocklyn will be retiring on Oct. 7, and a new director has not yet been chosen. He said he was confident that Derschowitz will do well as an interim director. “She’s very diligent, focused, and very aware and respectful of the best practices,” he said. “She always starts from the ‘what is the right way to do this?’ point of view. And she lays out the right path for people in lay terms as well as professionally.”
Blocklyn added that a collections manager sometimes has to step in when the director is sick or away. And he said he hopes the society will make a decision soon, so she can continue the work she was hired to do.
As for Derschowitz, she said she was looking forward to all of the new challenges at the society. “I’m ready to work with a new collection of artifacts, which come with their own unique backstories and special needs for preservation,” she said. “I remember from my studies that historic houses allow staff to take on more responsibilities due to, at times, limited staff. My time at the 9/11 Museum has made me confident that I could make a real difference in managing a collection at a more senior level.”
She has been busy since May, creating new policies and procedures for visiting researchers, and cataloging and rehousing the artifacts.
“I'm thrilled for the opportunity to learn about this new collection, and hope to have as meaningful a connection as I had with the collection at the 9/11 Museum,” she said. “What I love about this job is it’s a way of seeing the world without leaving.”