Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum

Beyond the characteristic of self-awareness, which is shared by other species, humans have an obsession with commemoration. Our focus on legacy extends well beyond the desire of our genes to procreate, afflicting us in a way that drives our linear existence during the relatively short time we enjoy what is called life.

9/11 Reflecting PoolA product of this obsession is the memorial, which manifest itself in myriad forms across the landscape. From wall graffiti to wilting flowers on a roadside, or something more ephemeral like a candlelight vigil, memorials are designed to evoke remembrance by connecting our personal experiences to the object we are commemorating. Whether or not we actually remember the subject of the memorial, we leave the experience feeling something that is personal and satisfying.

With that in mind I visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum recently with the concern that the experience would leave me emotionally drained and intellectually wanting. The exhibit’s mission, “to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993,” suggests a role that is more memorial than museum. Mixing memorial and museum creates a number of thorny issues. While many have complained about the gift shop — profiting from commerce in a place of solemnity — that is a minor matter compared to the systemic design issues. The memorial is clearly, if not singularly, designed to evoke a strong emotional response and encourage visitors to personalize the experience. “Where was I on that morning?” “What did I feel?” This is great for generating empathy but interferes with the process of understanding that the museum should foster. A museum owes its visitors a public history experience, one which includes the perspective, knowledge, and narration of the curators. If visitors personalize the attacks, then their ability to incorporate the narrative and learn is degraded.

WTC TridentThe mood is set immediately upon entering, as you walk down a corridor full of projected images and audio testimonies taken from around the globe. People describe how they felt upon hearing the news and watching the event unfold. Everyone is encouraged to place themselves within the exhibit, and it is difficult not to participate. I was immediately transported back to my work commute, listening to Bob Edwards on Morning Edition come to the realization that the first plane crash was not an accident. In the space of a few footfalls images from throughout the day flashed through my mind, and associations long since dispersed became tactile once again: the smell of a closed office building, the harsh glow of fluorescent lighting, the co-workers that I never really liked yet commiserated with on that day, and finally the image of smoke rising above Manhattan as my plane descended into Newark airport three weeks later.

Certainly the most evocative space is a small remembrance chapel set in the center of the memorial. Bench seating is provided for those who wish to reflect upon the stories of each person lost on that day. Names and vital statistics are projected on the walls while surviving friends and relatives recount anecdotes about victims (or perhaps the survivors are the victims?) As I sat and listened, I asked myself from where did the feelings come? I did not know anyone who perished in the attacks. What was it about the exhibit that would provoke the kind of intense response I experienced? The purpose of the memorial — to draw upon my own experiences to create something unique — weaves shared threads throughout the culture that allows us to connect at a social level without possessing commonalities.

Exhibit curators encourage personalization through their focus on mundane artifacts. Computer diskettes and the display of a Home Depot receipt are intended to remind us that we could have easily been victims. “But for the grace of God go I.” This emphasis on the mundane is problematic, since it cannot be relied upon to provide context for the rest of the exhibit. It is, essentially, empty calories. While a little bit is satisfying, too much leaves one malnourished.

Interestingly, the Smithsonian caused a tremendous uproar in the 1990s when they included mundane items from Hiroshima in their Enola Gay exhibit design. These items — which included a burnt doll — were considered inflammatory and political. Veterans groups and members of Congress were in an uproar, and despite the museum’s effort to radically redesign the exhibit, the NASM director Martin Harwit resigned his job in the face of Congressional hearings. The public’s response to the 9/11 Memorial Museum indicates that the political message is more palatable when we are the victim and not the aggressor.

How does one not politicize a political act? The museum is hobbled by the memorial’s mission of solemnity. By the time one reaches the museum — a separate area beyond the memorial — the experience is so personalized that the hope of gaining understanding of events is dashed. Unvarnished introspection cannot occur, nor can we consider a framework in which al Qaeda is a rational actor (despite their terrorist tactics.) But if we are to gain a greater understanding of the world and America’s role as a geopolitical leader, that is exactly what we must do. The greatest opportunity this exhibit misses is allowing visitors to transcend provincialism and become cosmopolitan, if for only a few hours. Instead, we are only offered the chance to question why anyone would want to hurt us, a people who have never harmed others.

I left the exhibit with many questions. Foremost is how younger people who have no direct experience of the day will view the exhibit. This can only become the proverbial statue in the park, a plaque with names of those who perished a century ago, and the projection of our own experiences onto historical events that bear no resemblance to days past. Perhaps striking “museum” from the name would help. This would certainly solve the problem of relying upon mundane artifacts to manipulate visitors while leaving them without a cohesive perspective. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet the higher expectations of solid public history. The 9/11 Memorial Museum suffers from an identity crisis: triangulating the needs and desires of survivors, mythologizing the role of the Twin Towers, and claiming to present a scholarly history of related events. Predictably it fails to rise above the banal.

The conversation continues on Twitter at #BeingAmerican. For other perspectives about the Enola Gay controversy visit the AHA’s “Historians Protest New Enola Gay Exhibit.”