How the 9/11 Museum Gets Us

There was little choice. From the earliest conceptions of what would be done at Ground Zero, there would be one. A museum. And now here it is, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened ...

There was little choice. From the earliest conceptions of what would be done at Ground Zero, there would be one. A museum. And now here it is, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened to the general public on May 21. Part of the necessity to “do something,” it was not easy to figure out, on this as on so many other fronts, what to make happen in the aftermath of the attacks. How could a public be attracted to a site of disaster with so many different repercussions, none easy to define? A war had not been won; there was no great man to commemorate. There were no rare finds, works of artistic genius, or bona fide relics of past civilizations.

But, and this was something to work with, there were victims. They had faces, voices, and belongings. Their existence could be made vivid. Properly engineered, visitors would feel others’ loss for themselves. The museum could be a shrine of empathy, a way to feel American death. And in this regard at least, we have a museum that works.

It is not the outcome that was envisioned in earlier stages of the great rebuild. Ground Zero was always to house a “cultural space,” including, predictably enough, the elements of “high culture” so favored these days in the urban redevelopment world. Plans and negotiations unfolded with already existing organizations, prized and appreciated, of the New York scene. The Joyce Dance Theater was to spin off a new venue from its location in the Chelsea neighborhood. The Drawing Center would move from SoHo and the Signature Theatre Company would give up its Theater District location.

But what about “the museum?” It had to be something significant in itself and not a transplant of an institution, however accomplished, from some other neighborhood. It had to be worthy of its Ground Zero gravitas and the “Freedom Tower” set to rise 1,776 feet next door. To solve the problem, the organization officially in charge of the rebuild—the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)—landed on the proposal for an “International Freedom Center.” A blue ribbon group came to the fore, with leaders drawn from the CEO ranks of real estate (Tishman), investment (Rockefeller Brothers, Bear Stearns), and a who’s who of academic, media, sports, and foundation leaders (including Tom Bernstein, one-time owner of the Texas Rangers and founding developer of New York’s Chelsea Piers). George Soros offered financial backing. Robert De Niro was on board to make his Tribeca Film Institute a part of the Freedom Center. Over a three-year planning period, an architectural design from the Norwegian firm Snøhetta went through several iterations. The museum outlined its mission:

Visitors from every nation on earth will come to the Center to understand and appreciate the story of freedom as an ongoing world movement, and to learn how the lives of the victims of September 11th were deeply connected to freedom’s evolution. In this way, the heroes of September 11 will be seen alongside the freedom heroes of history, and the poignant tragedy of the day will be portrayed in the light of other great sacrifices that have been made on behalf of free and open societies.1

Not a bad glorification of those 9/11 victims—most of whom in fact died by coming to work on a bright and sunny morning. Likening them to other “freedom heroes of history” would involve, it was to become apparent, taking up the great repressions, genocides, and enslavements of history, including the annihilation of US Native Americans. This museum would search for continuities across global oppressions and the forces opposing them. Some came to refer to it as a “human rights museum.” At least implicitly, there was the potential for the Freedom Center to offer fresh historical interpretations, identify warning signs, and propose strategies of remedy. In a distinctive way, it might teach.

Despite the fanfare and considerable praise that accompanied announcements of each component of the redevelopment, opponents also came forth, especially from victims’ families. Perhaps the first sign of hostility was complaints against the Drawing Center, which had exhibited an artwork ridiculing President Bush’s declaration against the “axis of evil,” as well as other projects easily seen as unpatriotic. Suspicions grew about the Freedom Center more generally, including, in the voice of a leading opponent, about the fact that “academics” and human rights activists would be participating in its programming.

New York State’s Republican Governor George Pataki proclaimed in no uncertain terms: “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice or courage that the heroes showed on September 11.”2 That was enough for the Drawing Center, which promptly pulled out. Signature Theater also thought better of the deal (money was part of its rationale) and decided instead to expand in the Theater District. The Joyce continued on but with reduced programming and space requirements.

Notwithstanding its efforts to placate with assurances of respect for the victims and American values more broadly, the Freedom Center aroused further opposition, with firefighters, police, Rudy Giuliani, and Hillary Clinton joining in with the families. Pataki, ending the controversy, evicted the museum, and its sponsors dissolved the project.

<i>Foundation Hall in the National September 11 Memorial Museum</i> (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

Foundation Hall in the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

So the museum that eventually made its way to reality is a fallback, an architectural and programmatic squeeze between what was permitted and what was not. It is about the destruction itself and the losses that came with it. In real life, of course, “the families” are a diverse group, forced into a common condition by catastrophe. Some family members mourn in private and do not participate at all in the various events and forums. Those who did participate, it should come as no surprise, sometimes expressed stridently opposing views. This created dilemmas for the museum staff who had to accommodate them along with the wishes of sponsors and donors, many both eminent and powerful (Michael Bloomberg chairs the museum’s board). At times family preferences, as eventually interpreted, reversed staff decisions, creating financial and design compromises along the way.

The building’s design and arrangement strive to build empathy for painful loss. Early upon entry one hears voices of people recalling where they were on learning of the attacks, whom they were with, what they were doing. Simultaneous text comes into view of the words being spoken. There are also videos of the shocked faces of people seeing the destruction in front of them—“the iconography of Godzilla movies,” as Alexandra Peers has impolitely described it.3 Voices, faces, gestures: mostly of ordinary people rudely interrupted while doing everyday things. We too might recall the circumstances of our own where-and-how and thus become part of the unfolding drama. Welcome to an emotional rollercoaster.

Besides the victims and their families, the only other actors given prominence in the exhibitions are the ones who brought down the towers, referred to as “Islamists” or “terrorists” or “Islamist terrorists.” The term “Islamist” makes its first appearance as the 13th word of a summary paragraph as one walks into a portal hallway of the museum. Whether to show the plotters’ faces at all was one of the issues dividing the families. They are indeed shown, particularly through the seven-minute film The Rise of al-Qaeda that loops continuously and conspicuously. The film functions as origin story, or at least as close to one as we are to get. As other videos show us the planes heading into the buildings, the planes too, in my estimation, become “Islamist“ horrors. More ghastly still, albeit discretely staged with appropriate warnings in a side gallery, are bodies jumping to certain and gruesome “Islamist”-caused death. The Rise of al-Qaeda is not, at this writing, accessible on the museum website or anywhere else on the web (nor was it made available to the New York Times when requested by the paper).

So the museum that eventually made its way to reality is a fallback, an architectural and programmatic squeeze between what was permitted and what was not.

The coarse “Islamist” motif has not gone over well with the US Muslim community and the museum’s own official interfaith advisory group unanimously asked for revision. They complained that the film could too easily identify Islam with al-Qaeda, rather than as the worldwide and diverse religion that it is. Yes, the terrorists invoked “Islam” in explaining their attacks. Are those who launched the wars afterward, and with plenty of talk about their own God, “Christianists”? The killers’ motivation, as the museum depicts it, was an ideology guided by “jihad.” It is not explained that jihad encompasses many meanings, including a personal struggle in devotion to spiritual discipline. Jihad involves effort against evil; at the museum, it is evil itself.

Oh, for a little context—about Islam, about jihad, about crusades of whatever form and the well-mannered colonial diplomats who carved the Middle East into its current “countries,” and the internal oppositions long in evidence within each of them. Not to mention the many erudite voices of the Middle East, Islamic and otherwise, in which museum audiences might find gentle reminders of their own lives, loves, and sense of loss. Or perhaps a teaching moment about the difference between what it means to be Arab and what it means to be Muslim. Maybe even something about the history of ordinary Arabs in the immediate neighborhood of the World Trade Center, which was in fact the first Arab community in the United States (made up mostly of Christian Arabs).

The design of the building comes off exceedingly well. It is filled with open volumes of subtly lit grays and tans, presenting the kind of dignity befitting death architecture. It is refined and somber and moves people. The design critics have been unanimous in their praise of the architects Davis Brody Bond, as well as of Snøhetta, retained for the ground-level plaza and entry pavilion.

The largest and most arresting things on display are the physical survivors themselves, objects that the terrorists had not managed to destroy. There are the massive slurry walls, raw and monumental, that once kept the Hudson River from inundating the site. Not only did they withstand the towers’ collapse, but also the maneuvering of heavy machinery atop their edges during clearance and early reconstruction. A freestanding 70-foot-high element of the former Yamasaki facade, the so-called “trident,” gains a power it never had when repeated as part of the original skyscrapers’ base. Ditto for other elements, like the two 20-foot I-beams that, as picked from the wreckage, manage to form a fire-ravaged steel cross. As now resurrected as a freestanding element within the museum, it is much contested by civil libertarians for its Christian connotation. The museum was built around a concrete escape stairway, badly damaged but intact as still another dramatic display. A mangled fire truck appears almost as a toy. Such large things within a building invert the usual scale-juxtaposition of structure and object, a stunning shift of perspective.

<i>Tridents at the National September 11 Memorial Museum</i> (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

Tridents at the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

Smaller artifacts, as individual items and also in accumulation, sharpen focus on individuals’ life momentum brought to a halt by the attacks. A spotlight falls on a pair of fashionable women’s high-heeled shoes. The wristwatch of Todd Beamer, one of the passengers who fought the hijackers to bring down United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, has a special place; the date window of the battered timepiece is, rather too predictably, frozen at “11.” There is a rack of bicycles covered with a layer of dust (“dust” that was itself disputed as hallowed victims’ remains that should have been more properly ensconced).

In one large exhibition space, photographs of each of the nearly three thousand victims are mounted across all four walls. Finger-activated panels allow visitors to tap on any particular photo to see more pictures, learn details about a person’s life, or hear testimonials from friends and family members. They are variously intimate, funny, and informative.

Devastating—for me at least—were the voice messages from people about to meet their doom, speaking for a last time with loved ones. We hear them in the museum, again and again as taste and proclivity permit. We hear what it is like to be caught in the horror of impending death and also to imagine what it must be like for the parents, children, spouses, and lovers who heard these messages in real time or from rescued devices. We’re not used to this; people don’t expect to have planes flying into their buildings and never before in history, as castles burned or rail cars left for the death camps, were there cell phones for people to relay their fears, bravery, and love for others. When people flung their bodies from high-rise windows, as did workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory less than two miles north of Ground Zero (on March 25, 1911), only the photographs and observers’ pens could record the havoc. The 9/11 Museum makes it here and now. Although I was a witness to the buildings’ collapse—from a location not far from that Triangle Shirtwaist building—hearing the voices these dozen years later was more purely affecting than seeing it happen with my own eyes.

I choked up.

I also wondered if I was in the clutches of a tearjerker, crafted to overwhelm. Hollywood-level talent was certainly involved in putting it together. Am I lacking the capacity to keep my analytic wits about me? Am I a pawn in the museum’s game of depoliticization? Is the whole place, as Philip Kennicott characterized it in the Washington Post, “an oversized pit of self-pity and voyeurism”?4 Is it pathos for the sake of pathos or not even that, just another case of disaster porn, an invitation for us to slow down at the road accident to see the victims at firsthand, take in the crushing of the vehicles, glimpse the blood?

Going personal is a tried and true journalistic technique for covering public tragedy, a way to help us “relate” to what has taken place (“The morning began in an ordinary way for Jim and his wife, Sue …”). Holocaust museums give each entrant the identity card of an actual person sent to the death camps, with their picture and a few life characteristics (at least this is the practice at the one in Washington, DC, and at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles). A public event grows skin and bones, hearts and thoughts. The Diary of Anne Frank—innocently in her case but less so on the part of her publishers and others who promote her accomplishment—shows us the model. The artifact and its story take a stranger into the intimacy of a life. When I teach introductory courses in sociology, I do some of the same, trying to make the subject less “dry” by showing films depicting real people facing joblessness or incarceration, for example.

Is it pathos for the sake of pathos or not even that, just another case of disaster porn, an invitation for us to slow down at the road accident to see the victims at firsthand?

Such strategies channel emotion to serve up a larger point. Aesthetic manipulation is always part of making meaning, regardless of genre. So the question is not whether or not, in regard to the 9/11 Museum, they “use” my emotions, but whether or not the goal is worthy. If they get to me—which they did—is it for a good cause? The institutional test is the outcome, the political and economic consequences most likely to result from the story being told this way and not some other. For a museum to be doing its proper part, it needs to serve up substance as well as feelings—to justify the manipulation and to give visitors somewhere useful to go outside the museum walls.

Back to those Holocaust Museums that the 9/11 Museum seems to emulate. The director of the 9/11 Museum, Alice Greenwald, was formerly an associate director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC; Tom Bernstein, of the International Freedom Center, has been a leader of the DC Museum for over a decade and was made its chairman by President Obama in 2012. But there is a clear-cut difference between these institutions. The Holocaust museums (there are now over 60 of them around the world) deliver a point: Never forget and never again. The footage, the piles of shoes, the mounds of human hair come with information—about Hitler, about people who let it happen, about allies who did or did not act. They show who these people were who did it and the context in which they operated. It is useful to become aware how modern technologies and systems could be so heinously applied. There are lessons to be learned here about warning signs and ways to head off danger.

At the 9/11 Museum, we lack a similar moral arc or even a line of reasoning. We have the terrorists who did this somehow “Islamic” thing and the bric-a-brac of the deed: plane parts, building shards, wrecked vehicles. There is artifactual force. But now what? What’s the history before the famous date? What could we have done, proximately or long-term, to have prevented it? What did we do afterward? How’d that go? Most important, what does any of this teach us about the nature of humanity or about politics, nations, cultures, countries, or even flight attendants?

On its website, the museum makes an effort to explain a purpose: it “bears solemn witness” and “attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.” Nothing to disagree with here, but the same words could appropriately be fixed to most any commemoration of disaster. The statement offers little guidance, aside perhaps from its implicit request for readers to join in the “attesting.”

Within the museum, the attesting text given primacy over all others is a snippet from Virgil’s Aeneid, and it has badly misfired. It resulted, I’d guess, from the same problem of empty space in search of content that has challenged the institution from the start. Sixty feet across and in brass letters handsomely lit are words proclaiming: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Alas, the quote commemorates two Trojan warriors, the male lovers Nisus and Euryalus, after they have hacked to death some sleeping enemy soldiers—the ground reeks with “warm black gore”—and in turn been killed themselves. “To apply the same sentiment to civilians killed indiscriminately in an act of terrorism …” wrote Caroline Alexander in the Times, “is grotesque.”5

<i>Spencer Finch, </i>Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning<i>, at the National September 11 Memorial Museum</i> (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

Spencer Finch, Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, at the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr

All this on the “hallowed ground”—the phrase came from the families and was picked up by Governor Pataki—of the towers’ original footprints. Actually, those footprints, or at least the top layers of earth to which they refer, became the two great plunging pools that constitute the 9/11 Memorial, adjoining the museum’s entry pavilion. The pools got the footprint, so the museum burrowed below the pools for its exhibition space. This settlement pushed construction dramatically downward, giving shape to the building and the experience of it—deep stairways, escalators, and ramps.

A vast excavation in literal terms, the project should now invite visitors to trace the origins of its specifics: the powers, sentiments, and cultural notions of the moment as they were and largely continue to be. In the US, we have a penchant for physical things to mark the ends of lives. Not all cultures do. We push for heroes, another option not always taken up everywhere. We allow, on a selective basis, those who suffer death of loved ones to make their mourning a public phenomenon. We curtail deeper search for meaning in actual past events or those likely to come. We do it our way.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the New Yorker invited a range of prominent figures to contribute short pieces, again a way to do something. Some were inspirational, all were sad. One, written by Susan Sontag, attracted vociferous condemnation, and it was the one that turned out to offer the most apt portent of what was to come. Sontag’s warning: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” Those words ought to be the ones on the wall. icon

Featured image: Exterior of the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph by Augie Ray / Flickr