The Tough Task of the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum

Last week The New York Times had a very interesting article on the development of the exhibits for the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero in New York (You can read the article here, and there’s a TED talk with images here). I feel for the curators involved since they seem to have been given the task of grabbing a live wire in American life.  Even once you subtract the emotional issues surrounding the human remains that are still unidentified (will they be part of the museum, albeit hidden? What about layers of crushed flooring that may still contain human tissue?), with setting the exhibition narrative the question is not whether some will be offended but who and how many.

Some of the objections that appear in the NYT article are very difficult to understand from a historical point-of-view.  How can you present an event without acknowledging who its perpetrators were, and why they thought they were doing it? What the memorial-museum—because it clearly won’t be allowed to separate those two tasks, despite the existence of Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence—is struggling with is the need to particularize an even that remains, for most Americans and many others, unfathomable (and for some, necessarily unfathomable).

The problem of loss that seems literally indescribable isn’t a new one.  After World War One, memorial builders began to adopt abstract forms in response to the sense that the horrors of that war simply couldn’t be encapsulated by realistic figures.  Edward Lutyens’ austere geometric Cenotaph in London and his monstrous red brick Monument to the Missing of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval (pictures at Wikipedia here and here).  Lutyens’ Cenotaph, as Jay Winter puts it, “says so much because it says so little.”  This is a trend that reaches its apogee in Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., a great gash in the earth that reduces that converts the war into the list of casualties inscribed upon it, and vice versa.

The same trend appears in memorials to the Holocaust, where the innumerable nature of the six million has led to memorials that try to subvert the very idea of vivid, tangible memorialization.  In Hamburg, the Monument Against Fascism was sunk into the ground in the years after its erection to finally create an invisible but inescapable acknowledgement of the absence of the victims of Nazism.  Kassel has an inverted fountain, while in Saarbrücken a public square features the names of 2,146 Jews buried in a cemetery destroyed by the Nazis, each one of which engraved on the bottom of a cobblestone to create a invisible monument to the resulting absence.

Despite the existence of Arad’s memorial, the Sept. 11 Museum is clearly being expected to memorialize as well as educate with its exhibits.  I hope they can manage to do so without failing to give future generations the tools to understand 9/11 in their own time.

It’s interesting to note that Professor James E. Young, who wrote an excellent book on these German monuments—The Texture of Memory—is also an advisor to the museum and memorial.  I’m looking forward to the book he’s preparing on that experience.

(Vincent Scully has an excellent section in Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, connecting Lutyen’sThiepval to Lin’s Vietnam memorial; there’s also good information in Jaw Winter’s classic Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning on post-World War One commemoration)

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