In New York, making space to remember 9/11

By Joanna Slater The Globe and Mail

It’s a deceptively simple question: How do you begin?

For the staff of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, finding the answer took nearly two years. They explored the question from every angle. Perhaps the starting point for visitors should be the 1993 bombing at the Twin Towers. Or maybe it was the construction of the two buildings in the late 1960s. Or did they need to go all the way back to the Crusades?

In the end, they decided their story would commence “where most people alive that day started,” says Jan Seidler Ramirez, the museum’s chief curator. As visitors enter the exhibition, they will hear reactions from around the world to the initial, confusing moments of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the point at which the unimaginable had not yet become real.

Set to open to the public on May 21, the museum is the final major piece of the $700-million memorial complex at Ground Zero – and arguably the most contentious. Its task is no less than to tell the tale of the worst terrorist attack on American soil in the very place where the violence occurred. It must navigate between the needs of victims’ families, the sensitivities of survivors, the wishes of local residents, and the obligation to educate future generations.

Like nearly everything connected to the World Trade Center site, the museum has been a source of controversy. Some family members, for instance, have urged the staff to be as thorough as possible, telling them not to shy away from the horror of the day and to present an unsparing picture of its consequences. Others have pressed for more restraint, noting that the site amounts to a cemetery.

Putting together the museum can be seen as a series of questions that would have tested King Solomon. Should visitors hear voice mails left by people who perished in the towers? Should there be any images of dead bodies? Do you display photographs of the perpetrators? How do you discuss the subsequent war on terrorism and its consequences?

Behind those questions is a deeper story about how to balance history and commemoration, just 13 years after the attacks occurred – an eye-blink in the broader sweep of time. The tension embedded in the project, says Ms. Ramirez, is whether to “err on the side of the remembering the sensitivities of people who are coming to mourn irreplaceable people” or to “err on the side of doing an analytical, historical exegesis.”

James Young, an expert on Holocaust memorials who has been an academic adviser to the venture, says it is impossible to avoid ruffling at least some feathers. “No museum or memorial will ever please everybody, and that can never be the point,” says the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, who also served as a juror for the design of the 9/11 memorial and is writing an account of his involvement in the project.

Even so, he adds, “I anticipate that people are going to be stunned by all there is to know about that day.”

Precedents and Remains

The former World Trade Center site is now home to an austere and powerful memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11: two sunken pools descend into the ground where the towers once stood. Since it opened in 2011, the memorial has welcomed more than 11 million visitors. But it provides no context or information about the attacks save for a few paragraphs in a slender brochure.

That job was left to the museum. Its entry pavilion sits at ground level on the memorial plaza, but the exhibits are housed seven stories underground in the cavity left by the foundations of the towers. In that sense, the museum doesn’t just display artifacts; it is one. At one point, visitors will find themselves in a giant space containing a portion of the original slurry wall built to hold back the Hudson River when the World Trade Center was constructed.

Run by a non-profit institution, the museum and memorial were financed by private donations and government grants. Revenue from museum admissions ($24 per person) and souvenir sales is expected to cover most of the complex’s $60-million annual budget.

When the museum’s staff set out to plan their exhibitions, there were few models for what they hoped to achieve. Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director, had worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which offered valuable lessons but could not serve as a template: the atrocities it commemorates occurred on a different continent and half a century before it opened in 1995.

That same year, a massive bombing in Oklahoma produced the only applicable precedent. Located on the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 168 people died, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum was fully open by 2001.

Kari Watkins, its executive director, says her discussions with the people in [New] York left a sense of déjà vu. Very few others have ever considered such issues – not only how to handle the perpetrators and their motives, but what to do with unidentified human remains.

Those found in Oklahoma are buried several kilometres away in a grove of trees at the state capitol. The 9/11 museum will house a repository of bone and tissue fragments, fulfilment of a long-standing promise by elected officials to return them to the site.

On the repository outer wall is a message to all from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The area inside is supervised by the city medical examiner, though, and accessible only to victims’ families.

The presence of the remains is the most controversial element of project. “The bottom line is that human remains do not belong in a museum,” says Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, was killed in the attacks. Afraid it will serve as “a bizarre, macabre draw,” she and others pressed for a tomb above ground that families could visit in solitude.

Finding the Limits

The museum is home to a plethora of powerful physical objects. They include fragments of all four planes that crashed on September 11 (in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon as well as in New York); a piece of the World Trade Center’s façade; and a “composite,” the crushed remnant of several floors after being subjected to extreme heat and pressure.

The accompanying narrative traces the history of al-Qaeda, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and including the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. It also emphasizes moments of heroism and resilience in the rescue and rebuilding efforts in order to communicate a sense of hope even amid great loss. A separate area is devoted to the lives of all who died.

To tell the story of what happened on September 11 itself, the museum had a surfeit of images, recordings and video footage. One illustrative dilemma was how to handle the voice mails left by people who died in the towers. Some of the messages, says Ms. Ramirez, were full of grace and love while others gave voice to the terror of people facing an inferno and running out of air to breathe.

An academic adviser counselled the museum staff to consider the messages as a form of human remains – a person’s last spoken statement – and to handle them with corresponding delicacy. They decided that visitors will be able to hear a small selection of the messages by picking up listening devices, but not the most disturbing ones.

“To hear the human voice in distress, particularly female voices in distress, it just sent people to pieces,” says Ms. Ramirez. “We couldn’t let our visitors listen to those. They were just too much.”

Mary Fetchet gave permission for the museum to use a voice mail left by her son Brad not long after the first plane hit the South Tower [sic – the first plane hit the North Tower]. He was in the other tower. She says he sounded frightened, having seen people leap to their deaths, but still expected to stay in the office. Then the second plane crashed into the North Tower [sic – the first plane hit the North Tower] where he was, cutting off any escape.

“It’s part of the story,” she says, and critical for educating people who are too young to remember that day.

The museum will not show images of dead bodies. But after much debate, it decided to have an alcove that shows fleeting projections of photos, taken from a distance, of people jumping to escape unimaginable heat and smoke. (More than 200 perished by making what Ms. Ramirez calls a “choiceless choice.”) Including visceral images is “a double-edged sword,” says Ms. Fetchet. For some people, the museum “will be very difficult for them to experience.” But “for future generations, that’s the only way they’re really going to understand what transpired.”

Ms. Ramirez agrees. As she shows a few artifacts from the museum’s vast collection, she defends some of the more sensitive decisions that have been made, and says timing is crucial. Displaying graphic images, she explains, “doesn’t feel right to us at this time, in this place.” But the material will be kept in the archives – in case future generations reach a different conclusion.

For a Canadian, the lost towers resonate in even the smallest artifact

For eight years, Evan Kuz kept it in a dresser drawer, between the pages of the novel he was reading on his first trip to New York City. Frame it, his friends said, or sell it on eBay.

But neither option felt right to the Winnipeg graphic designer, among the last people ever to visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, which soared 400 metres above the ground.

The ticket is stamped September 10, 2001, but doesn’t tell the whole story. That evening the weather was bad and the view obscured, so Mr. Kuz decided to meet a friend there the following morning to try again.

Fortunately, he went for a jog instead and she woke up late, so neither was there when disaster struck.

Since then, the ticket has been weighted with memories, most of them difficult: the frantic search to locate his friend; the smell of smoke; the posters seeking missing loved ones in the days after the attacks.

Just more than five years ago, Mr. Kuz read about the museum and promptly offered to donate the ticket – one of several artifacts connected to Canada and now in the museum’s collection. Among them are pieces of “tribute art,” such as a book of drawings sent by elementary school students in the Montreal suburb of Blainville – pages filled with cut-out hearts and condolences. A church in St. Anthony, Nfld., sent a book of signatures from a special memorial service it held.

For Mr. Kuz, handing over the ticket brought unexpected emotion – and satisfaction. “If it is a piece of history,” he says, “I think it belongs in other people’s hands rather than mine.”

This entry was posted in 9/11 Memorials. Bookmark the permalink.