Some thoughts about the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Haidy Geismar, UCL

I recently spent an afternoon at the site of the former twin towers, where now there lies, imprinted on the foundations, one of the largest memorials I have visited, and underneath that a cavernous museum, both dedicated to memorializing the events of September 11, 2001. This review has emerged out that experience and from a conversation with Harvey Molotch who recently wrote a review of the 911 museum at Public Books. Called “How the 9/11 Museum Gets Us” Molotch reflects on the affective qualities of the museum, pulling together a powerfully christian iconography, personalizing the experience by exploring the victims in material detail through their possessions, and whitewashing historical context.

Photography was not allowed inside the main exhibit so the images I present show the memorial, and the outer areas  of the museum which allow the visitor to traverse the spectral foundations in the former basement of the building, punctuated by large remnants of the day, such as the Vesey street stairs, one of the few pieces of architecture left in one piece which has been relocated here through to fire trucks and steel girders.

The scale of the memorial is one of its most striking qualities, the bottomless sense of the pools, the crashing sound of the water and the smell of the chlorinated water. In scale it is similar to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Berlin designed by Peter Eisenmann – taking up a large undeveloped swath of public space right by the Brandenburg Gate. The image on the website for the Berlin memorial (follow the previous link) shows three people jauntily resting against the concrete slabs, belying the dizzying effect of being within the memorial which plays with your sense of scale as you move through the concrete blocks of differing height. Reflecting Absence, designed by Michael Arad, works on the opposite principle. Its scale confounds because you cannot enter it, but simply stand looking over the edge.

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Reflecting Absence. Photograph by Haidy Geismar

Reflecting Absence. Photograph by Haidy Geismar

The memorial works (if we can say it works) in the ways that it can hold people apart from one another, around the mechanical vortex of ever rushing water. The names of the deceased are arranged, by a software algorithm, according to principles of “meaningful adjacencies” reflecting relationships between people who worked and died together. This, however, is not apparent to the visitor who may struggle to see the names under the bright glare of the reflected water on a sunny day. As memorials go this is of an cinematic and Republican scale – it reminded me of the lavish Romanesque sets of the dystopian Hunger Games film franchise.

Cinema and spectacle continue as exhibitionary tactics within the museum. The museum itself is situated in the basement foundations, nestling amongst the footprints of columns in the former WTC garages, drawing our attention to the earlier WTC bombing which is presented as the genesis of 911.

"The Vesey Street Stairs" relocated to the 911 Memorial Museum. Photograph Haidy Geismar

“The Vesey Street Stairs” relocated to the 911 Memorial Museum. Photograph Haidy Geismar

Moving under ground the visitor experience begins by a series of encounters with what have become the monumental record – large remnants of the buildings, framing a wall behind which are interred the unidentified remains of the victims, coloured by an artist installation of blue watercolours each responding to a different description of the sky on the morning of the attacks.

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Spencer Finch, Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, at the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph Haidy Geismar

Spencer Finch, Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, at the National September 11 Memorial Museum (2014). Photograph Haidy Geismar

This massive space leads one into a large permanent display which moves the visitor through the events of the day, in a large gallery with side chapels containing sensitive material. The side chapels create an odd experience of dissonance, disrupting narrative flow as they shift in temporal and conceptual focus. For instance, the side chapel dedicated to images of people jumping from the blazing towers, is framed with a quote from a bystander who felt compelled through respect to look at them, yet ends up creating the same feeling a shamed shock that watching the events on the media inculcated. I remember being in New York during the time, the intensive media discussion in the days that followed about whether or not it was appropriate to keep showing those kind of images – after a few days in which the only television coverage was the event (and for New Yorkers who lost their cable which broadcast from the towers limited to only one station), the networks gradually stopped broadcasting images of people jumping. The presence of these blurry images in the museum is therefore jarring, showing the visitor both how mediated, and unmediated, our experiences were on that day.

Display showing eyewitnesses to 911 watching from New York and around the world

Display showing eyewitnesses to 911 watching from New York and around the world

The presence of images of jumpers also reflects the very abundance of material that the museum has in its possession, again providing a tension between the obliterative efforts of the airplanes and the determination to salvage and preserve the materiality of the day. Many objects, some still coated with dust, bear spray painted marks requesting that they be preserved, as collecting initiatives by major museums began in the immediate aftermath. There is a parallel abundance of personal items, donated by families to commemorate those lost in the towers, as well as artifacts salvaged through the rescue operation (and visually it is not always clear which is which). There is also an abundance of media with listening stations playing news reports, answerphone messages from the passengers on the plane or people in the towers on short loops. These loops of only a few seconds do not do justice to our attention spans as the presence of these images and voices are by far the most popular parts of the display, causing bottlenecks of people stationed around the audio-visual material.

Even from the very first display this tension between fascination and disattention is presented in a display that presents media snapshots of people witnessing the event both in New York and elsewhere – yet the profundity of this mediation and shared moment is given as no more than a soundbite.

Within this abundance is plenty of information and it is intelligent and thoughtful. Despite the criticisms, if you read carefully, you can find a relatively nuanced account of Islamic extremism. You can find a bit more evidence about the past lives of the suicide bombers. You can find out about the ongoing health problems of those who worked on the rescue and salvage and those who were encouraged to go back to work by the Environmental Protection Agency – keen to reopen Wall street as quickly as possible. But the information is undermined by the cacophonous curation, and circuitous route one takes through the museum which breaks up narratives, and punctuates our questions with moments of shock, sentimentality and in the case of several of the stories macabre fascination.

The infamous image, which I recall as presented as life size in the display, of the body of FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge being carried from the buildings, an image that has been called “an american pieta” is a case in point. This image almost more than any other reflects the aesthetic ethos of the display – we see the perfect examples of rescue and camaraderie in the efforts of the firefighters (and one WTC white collar employee) to carry Judge’s body away. We are also fascinated by this perfect image of death – a substitute for all those bodies that were not recovered.

Label explaining the representational conventions for the victims of 9/11. Photograph Haidy Geismar

Label explaining the representational conventions for the victims of 9/11. Photograph Haidy Geismar

This aesthetic between commemoration and fascination, continues within the abundance of collected artifacts many of which must be seen as curated by communities of interest.

"The dream bike" on display in the museum. Photo Haidy Geismar

“The dream bike” on display in the museum. Photo Haidy Geismar

Outside the main exhibit are commemorative artefacts such as the “dream bike” – a motorcycle belonging to a fireman lost in the flames, lovingly restored in tribute to him – or contemporary art projects from quilting initiatives to elementary school posters.  Inside the exhibition is a wide range of material culture – from objects salvaged from the site through to objects donated by families in memory of their lost ones. The multiply authored collection, overrides authoritative museum discourses by presenting kitsch, tchotchkes, personal projects, unprofessional art and so on, and lends a powerful sense of the ways in which the museum has been co-curated by different constituencies.

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In the world I know best – that of ethnographic collections and  indigenous representations – multiple critiques were levied at the National Museum of the American Indian when it first opened in 2004. In displays such as “Our lives” or “Our Universes” which presented a multiplicity of native voices and community collected artifacts within an overarching narrative of “survivance” in the face of centuries of systematic colonialism, some critics felt that there were too many objects (and that some of the objects were trivial rather than canonical) and not enough history (or canonical curatorial voice). New York Times columnist, Edward Rothstein’s critique suggested that curating by committee was not in the best interests of coherent museology. Whilst none of these critiques have been levied in mainstream media about the 9/11 museum it is perhaps ironic that some of the families of 9/11 victims have, in recent years, been partnering with American Indian groups in order to critique the 911 museum’s appropriation of the unidentified remains of their loved ones (discussed here but apologies because it is behind a paywall).

For me, this mainstreaming of community curation is the museum’s greatest museological contribution. One could deconstruct the entire cacophony and use it to explore broader frameworks of American identity politics, foreign relations, class, race, and aesthetics. Taken together, as a cacophonous whole, the museum and memorial demonstrate how 9/11 remains as a kind of psychic wound in American culture, drawing together hidden fears, the imperative to remember the dead used in order to allow the living to construct their own aesthetics, and sentiments, of memorialization. In this way, the 9/11 museum in its entirety is an object lesson in social history.

Memorial poster on siding on the construction site for the PATH train adjacent to the WTC memorial site. Photo Haidy Geismar

Memorial poster on siding on the construction site for the PATH train adjacent to the WTC memorial site. Photo Haidy Geismar

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  1. Around the Web Digest: Week of November 1 | Savage Minds - November 8, 2015

    […] Material World reviews the new 9/11 memorial and museum, suggesting that while it may have suffered from a certain degree of curation by committee, it’s more nuanced than other reviews have suggested in its treatment of radical Islam and the bombers: Some Thoughts About the 9/11 Memorial and Museum […]

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