What is the purpose of a museum? What is it supposed to do? To be?
On one level, a museum is an institution that houses artifacts of scientific, artistic, cultural or historic significance on display to the public. Museum mission statements often talk about informing, educating, entertaining or inspiring the viewers.
As the Geico ad says, “Everybody knows that.”
Then there is the relatively new subspecies, the “memorial museum.” Relatively new phenomena, these spaces have proliferated over the past 25 years. They share common mission to commemorate a particular horrific event. Their mottoes are all variations of “never forget.”
The National September 11 Memorial Museum is one such institution, whose simple mission statement pledges, “[to] bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993.” The statement belies the enormous complexity involved in commemorating an event whose horrors are still felt by many and whose consequences are still unfolding.
To put it bluntly, museum planners had to balance the political, cultural and emotional sensitivities of various stakeholders with the duty to present a full accounting of the history of 9/11.
In 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the entity overseeing rebuilding at Ground Zero, created the Memorial Museum Advisory Committee. I served on the committee, which was comprised of victims’ relatives, survivors, first responders, historians, preservationists, and curators. Over the course of several months, we sifted through mounds of materials and made several field trips here and abroad to study other commemorative spaces. One thing was clear: while other memorial space designers had the advantage of perspective, we had to supply it. Three years out isn’t much of a vantage point.
Our recommendations were adopted after a period for public input in July of 2004. The emphasis was on conveying the magnitude and impact of 9/11, sharing the individual and collective stories of victims, survivors, first responders, area residents and witnesses, conveying the power and authority of the iconic World Trade Center site, and providing a context regarding the terrorist attacks.
As a family member and a member of the original advisory committee, I understood the struggles and constraints placed upon the designers. I needed to see how they implemented our recommendations while remaining under continuous pressure by the stakeholders.
It took two visits to the museum to appreciate all it has achieved.
The single most astonishing fact about the National September 11 Memorial Museum is that it’s contained within the vestiges of the old site. Jan Ramirez, chief curator, refers to the space as an archeological reliquary, one that holds “sacred” objects and relics of historical and cultural significance. While there are a few spaces above ground in the glass-enclosed atrium-an auditorium, a cafe, the family room-the heart of the museum lies below at the base of the old World Trade Center.
One descends through a soundscape of voices recalling their impressions of 9/11 alongside the preserved slurry wall — the wall that prevented the Hudson River from flooding Lower Manhattan. Also on view are the flyers of the missing, eerily projected onto the remnants.
Below, the mosaic “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning” separates the main exhibits. The Spencer Finch installation is rendered on 2983 individually painted watercolor sheets, each a variant of blue. It manages to pay homage to those who died on what had appeared to be a perfect day.
The two viewing areas represent different experiences. South is given over to remembrance, reflection and resilience. It starts at the space between the north and south tower footprints, where box column remnants mark where the buildings stood. Victims’ images and information are displayed in a quiet area called “In Memoriam.” The Tribute Walk features the variety of artistic responses to 9/11. A short clip of the documentary film, “Project Rebirth” features the uplifting personal journeys of several survivors along with a visual timeline of the redevelopment process.
The North spotlights several massive artifacts in the center hall. The core component is a detailed three-part historical segment that examines the before, during and after of September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in the before section, as do the hijackers, whose inclusion had been opposed by some. Video montages emphasize the history and iconic nature of the Twin Towers.
The events of the day are presented in a manner that delivers a punch. Photographs of the burning towers, the shocked faces of witnesses, and the decimated skyline all bring home the visceral confusion, fear, panic, and uncertainty we felt. I found the most gut-wrenching element to be the recordings of frantic calls between commanders and firefighters, trapped office workers and families, officials who didn’t yet know the extent of the attack, or reporters and anchors who couldn’t fathom that a building-an entire building-had fallen, let alone two of them. This section is likely to be a difficult experience for anyone sensitive to the sound of terror. As a narrative tool, however, it is intensely effective.
The post-9/11 section is limited by space and perhaps by sensitivities to political realities. While some occurrences are documented, such as our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan and his eventual death in Pakistan, others are missing. There is no discussion about the Iraq war. Neither is there anything about the lingering health issues faced by those who worked on “the pile.” When I brought this up to Ramirez, she was forthright: “We couldn’t make this about the policy decisions of a particular administration and still provide the focused perspective we needed.” She did assure me that the 3,000-foot space for special exhibits scheduled to open in spring of 2015, would be designated for ongoing discussions about 9/11’s aftermath.
She also reminded me about the area titled “Reflecting on 9/11,” which I’d missed on my first outing. This media installation combines the observations of 100 pre-selected officials, advocates, activists, and politicians (I was among them) with randomly selected recordings of individuals who are invited to visit the recording booths. The unfiltered comments strike me as the most direct example of participatory democracy imaginable and its inclusion in the museum is elevating.
At the end of my tour, I walked through the museum store. It looks just like any other museum store in an age in which our cultural institutions must compete for attention and dollars. Inside are commemorative cups with inspirational words or the ever-present “I [heart] New York” logo. The reading material appears noncontroversial, the jewelry understated. Also for sale are FDNY, NYPD and EMS patches. Flags are everywhere — on T-shirts, mugs, decals, and pins.
The store’s critics have suggested its presence dilutes the museum’s essential meaning. I disagree. While I was once conflicted about commercial objects that were supposed to “represent” the horrors and sorrows of that day, I’ve come to understand them as a way to acknowledge the event. Their sales support the museum, as does a visit or a membership. More importantly, no bracelet or cap can diminish the monumental majesty of the museum, its message of reverence, remembrance, reflection and resilience. At least that’s my takeaway from a visit that left me proud, honored, and oddly enough, hopeful.
Nikki Stern is an author living in Plainsboro. She is the former executive director of Families of September 11.