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.”

Identity as a Zero-Sum Game

I visited the Guggenheim Museum last weekend and viewed the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective. Weems is a photographer and videographer who deftly manipulates her instrument with what is deservedly called a powerful voice. If you live in the area, go see it now: it closes in mid-May.

My thoughts this week continue to coalesce around the idea that forming and achieving American identity is a zero-sum game, that those who hold an image of #BeingAmerican must struggle to maintain their identity real estate, and that becoming more inclusive means diluting what people have. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, which is the point. We have all been raised with the cultural myth of the melting pot: disparate populations coming together to form that savory, balanced stew that nourishes the most exceptional nation in history. I suspect that, in our moments of sobriety, all of us recognize that the myth and the reality are quite divergent.

Of all the moving imagery I saw, there are two in particular that I wish to consider here. They might not be the most memorable or popular images, but they carried the message of zero-sum identity politics.

The first image — a still-life of a living room end table — appears in an early portfolio, Family Pictures and Stories. The print itself is stunning, a dark image with a brilliant range of tone and balanced composition, lustrous wood contrasted by the stark light of the side lamp. On the table, next to the lamp, is a pair of “Chinaman” figurines. My initial reaction was very mixed. I am almost as old as Weems and therefore grew up in the same era, familiar with similar items in either my home or those of my extended family. But orientalism has always made me uncomfortable: it suppresses a true understanding of other cultures and allows one to avoid confronting prejudice by transferring that behavior to what is not real. So why were these types of icons so prevalent? Establishing a hierarchy of identities through stereotyping allows us to claim and hold that identity real estate we need to be American, to prove we are integrated into the whole. Instead of the melting pot being inclusive, we seek to join and remain American by excluding others.

I am not making this observation to excuse it, but merely to identify a weakness that we all share.

The second image — or images — were so powerful they brought me to tears. Weems overlaid a quadtych of four antebellum slave portraits with the words House, Kitchen, Yard, Field. Yes, we are to feel shame. Yes, Weems is making a point about dehumanization. But I also think there is a contrary force in motion here: the base labels take away a basic value for all of us, thus we must confront the consequences of an exclusive identification process throughout our history. To take something away imparts value to it. Denying people identity recognizes its importance. Even [especially] today, the exclusive politics of #BeingAmerican creates a hurtful, counterproductive, and unnecessary process of cultural assimilation.

If you want to know how important a cohesive American identity is to people, look at how white Protestants are responding to the demographic shifts in the United States (don’t forget one of my “favorites”, David Barton.) By seeking to deny American identity to people who are not white, male, and Protestant –okay, maybe I’ll give you Christian — we force the perpetuation of the zero-sum identity game. A game at which Carrie Mae Weems has proven a formidable opponent.

On #BeingAmerican

My current project examines the relationships between national, social, and individual identities, and how we view ourselves as American. Identity is like the Evil Queen’s Magic Mirror: it has defined boundaries and function, but everyone approaches it with different expectations and leaves with a personalized experience. It is not surprising then to find tremendous differences in personal beliefs while observing a shared definition and purpose. This has been the theme threaded through several recent readings.

At the end of my graduate coursework I wrote a state of the field paper that included Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. The book examines how the Monroe Doctrine evolved throughout the nineteenth century; specifically, Murphy uses discourse analysis to show that popular culture contained many of the concepts that politicians and thought leaders adopted in their policies. Monroe’s nascent framework was nearly stillborn: it grew slowly, branching into different interpretations, each waxing and waning as our nation’s agenda and influence changed. The relationship between American social identity and political forces is direct and powerful. Even contemporary assertions that the Monroe Doctrine is dead ignore its incorporation into American identity.

Of interest today is a problem that Murphy identified in the opening of her Introduction:

Even the name “America” bespeaks the crisis; conventionally used to designate the cultural identity of the United States, its implicit erasure of Latin America and Canada is now painfully apparent…

For Murphy, the solution is to coin the term “USAmericans.” A bit clunky at first, I quickly realized it was effective for distinguishing between the various Americas of the present day. Recognizing the contemporary hubris of USAmericans to co-opt the identity of an entire hemisphere is a first step to respecting other cultures between Ellesmere and Patagonia.

Later, historian Jonathan Wilson posted the following to Twitter. “USians” indicated a trend and, upon chatting with him, he also offered his awareness of the term “Statism.”

However, our view of the hemisphere is much different today than in the nineteenth century, and one could accuse Murphy of performing Whiggish history (although in fairness she is a professor of English.) Did we view ourselves as rightful claimants to the title in the early days of the republic? Was there competition for the title at that time? Or are we simply projecting present-day concerns into the past?

I grabbed my copy of The Federalist and examined the thirty-four uses of the string “American.” Like those of us in the present day, the term is used to identify not only the new nation but also those members who comprise the cultural and civic body. That may be less surprising when one considers the neighborhood at that time: Great Britain, Spain, and France controlled most of the remaining western hemisphere and maritime routes, providing imperial perspectives for the non-indigenous peoples.

What is interesting about The Federalist is how Madison and Hamilton employ the word. While the latter favors its use in describing a regime, dominion, and state, Madison is quite comfortable using it as a container for the members of the new nation. Neither have a problem with excluding other western hemisphere societies.

Consider Hamilton’s remark in Federalist no. 11:

They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine.

He not only uses the term to describe various dominions within a geographic region, but he elevates the new nation to the status of a significant player. This statement asserts the role of the United States as a legitimate force in the Atlantic world, and foretells the development of attitudes and policies in the nineteenth century.

Madison, however, clearly favors the term to describe individuals as members of a society. Already in 1789, he views his cohort as one body, an organism evolved to conquer the vast geography of the continent and repel external dangers, as witnessed in Federalist no. 14:

…the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.

The metaphor of the body is powerful, capturing the profound diversity of the nation’s citizenry, their interdependency on one another, and the transcendence beyond the sum of their parts. Although the brain and the liver are profoundly different and may work at cross-purposes from time to time — at least my brain regularly enjoys the alcohol that my liver must work to remove — they cannot exist without each other, and both clearly belong to something greater than themselves (at times, anyway.) By addressing this interdependency, Madison presages notions of being American. Whether deliberate or not, he is creating space for popular and civic culture to begin defining the boundaries of a national identity, a space that will be molded and kneaded by myriad factions throughout the history of the United States. This process not only shapes identity but also circumscribes the behavior of future actors.

Nearly 125 years later, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan would focus its rebranding on notions of American identity. Dr. Kelly Baker deftly examines this process in her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Although Baker — a historian of religion — warns us to maintain a boundary between the KKK and white, Protestant America, it is not irresponsible to place the KKK at a different point on the same continuum of American social identity. In essence, the Klan is looking into the same Magic Mirror as the rest of us.

Indeed, Baker draws the connection early:

The Klan gained a following because of its twin messages of nation and faith, and the fraternity progressed because of members’ commitment to its religious vision of America and her foundations.

Americans — USAmericans, USians, etcetera — have always expressed discomfort when facing down groups like the Klan. We tend to look at them as boils or abscesses on the body, and our social narrative regularly “others” such groups to preserve its pristine nature. Although identity is necessarily fictional by nature, such preservation is counterproductive to understanding the true capacity of it, where it originates, and how it might evolve in response to certain social pressures. It may be full of pus, but it’s our pus, and more importantly it is representative of processes within our civic body.

The space carved out by Madison et al. to debate the notion of American identity is still in use today, and still contains the momentum of that early legacy. Each iteration of cultural debate and policy depends upon the previous. Both Murphy and Baker successfully trace their subject matter through to the present, and both have their foundations in the late eighteenth century. In fact, I would argue that losing sight of Madison’s body metaphor constitutes the greatest internal threat. While it may be time to encompass other cultures in what we consider to be American, we must also strive to encompass the many factions within the body of the United States. Only through an honest assessment of what we are can we shape who we will become.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter using #BeingAmerican.