NEW YORK -- One of the largest and most prominently-displayed artifacts inside the 9/11 Museum's preview site is actually a collection of nearly 800 smaller artifacts, assembled by a mostly anonymous group of people from around the world.
A 9-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty is draped in colorful flags, photographs, notes, and tributes -- individual mementos that visitors attached to the statue outside a midtown Manhattan firehouse.
Friday marks the 125th birthday of the actual Lady Liberty.
The firehouse, Engine Company 54/Ladder Company 4/Battalion 9, lost 15 men in the attacks. Tourists and neighbors left candles and flowers on the sidewalk in front of their building. They posted large signs to the wall.
Then, within 48 hours after the attacks, Lady Liberty appeared.
"It's a bit of a mystery," said 9/11 Museum Chief Curator Jan Ramirez, "about how this fiberglass figure of the Statue of Liberty, which may have been outside one of the tour bus companies on 8th Avenue for sightseers, actually walked across the street to the firehouse."
"Very quickly, initially in her pristine state, she began to take on small tributes that passers-by and tourists, and then members of the fire department and New Yorkers began to leave on her," Ramirez said.
The tributes include emotionally-stirring notes, including a letter from a then-2-year-old boy and his newborn twin sisters that reads, "Daddy, we miss you!"
Many people left victims' photographs. Others left police and fire patches from around the world. Airline workers left their wing pins. One person left a ring.
Several layers of flags, most of them American, fill the voids.
"It is the Statue of Liberty", said Ramirez. "It's a universal symbol of the United States. And we feel that it also gets at so many different themes that people will be able to explore when they come to the museum."
That's why museum officials are featuring Lady Liberty so prominently at the preview site. They say they'll use it to help people learn about both the individual and community memorials that popped up after the attacks.
They say it will likely end up at the entrance to the education center within the museum, which is scheduled to open next September 11th.
Clifford Chanin, the 9/11 Museum's Director of Education, says the statue is one of the iconic objects on which the museum's educational program will focus.
The way he describes it, the Statue of Liberty replica is adorned in a "gown of memory."
"It became, really, an iconic representation of what people felt, what they were trying to express, and these deep feelings of solidarity and loss."
Chanin says the symbolism of Lady Liberty makes it accessible to students of all ages. He's also taken strides to make it accessible to people far away.
The museum's website includes an interactive feature, in which visitors can zoom into the statue, explore some of the individual tributes, and learn more about some of the people behind them.
In celebration of Lady Liberty's 125th birthday, a ceremony will take place Friday to commemorate the statue given by the French government to the U.S. as a token of friendship between the two countries on Oct. 28, 1886.
The interactive Lady Liberty can be found at http://ladyliberty.national911memorial.org/