David Shayt, a curator with the National Museum of American History, was searching for artifacts from Hurricane Katrina. He wanted something that symbolized the devastation but also the destruction of the fabric of ordinary life.

"I wanted something that reflected the trauma of losing one's home, and I almost gave up," Shayt said. But going through New Orleans's upended Lakeview section, he spotted a toy castle lying in the mud between houses, tossed upside down. "Castles are impregnable and supposed to be our fortress. That toy castle spoke volumes about our expectation that houses are supposed to last," he said. He sealed the castle in a container, mud and all, and brought it back to Washington.

Now that artifact is the beginning of an effort by the museum to document Hurricane Katrina. The museum announced yesterday that historians, curators and photographers have started assembling items from the Gulf Coast to be preserved in the archives.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Smithsonian waited until Congress asked curators to collect materials from Ground Zero.

This time, museum officials didn't want to lose "the authenticity moment," Shayt said. Shayt and photographer Hugh Talman spent five days in the region in late September.

It is the museum's first concerted effort to document a natural catastrophe. Shayt hopes the objects collected capture the horrific plight of those who survived.

Among the items Shayt and Talman discovered: a cot from the Superdome, pulled out of a dumpster; lace valances from a New Orleans home that showed the water was six feet high inside; a kitchen clock, stopped when the hurricane struck in Waveland, Miss.; and shrimping gear from a fisherman in Biloxi, Miss.

Shayt also was searching for indications of the citizen protest about the government relief effort.

"The first night we had driven to Terrebonne Parish, and in the fading light I saw the sign 'Have We Been Forgotten' and we saw some people paddling around and met the LeBeouf family. The sign reflected their feelings and situation," said Shayt, who then got permission from Roy Rowley, a neighbor who made the sign, to take it for the Smithsonian.

The museum doesn't have plans to display the materials, but Shayt is going back next week for more hunting. The museum created a small exhibit with the 9/11 artifacts on the first anniversary of the attack.