[Even—perhaps especially—recent, painful, and controversial events and topics demand our AmericanStudying. So this week, I’ve offered a handful of ways to AmericanStudy September 11th, 2001, and its contexts and aftermaths, leading up to this special memorial post.]
On our current 9/11 memorial, what it could be, and why the difference matters.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should begin by noting that I haven’t yet had a chance to visit New York City’s 9/11 Memorial and Museum (although I have seen One World Trade Center jutting into the city’s skyline). So as always, but even more so in this case, I welcome any corrections or different perspectives, along with any and all other comments. I do have a number of family members and friends who have visited the memorial, however, and from their responses and reviews (as well as those I’ve read online, with that amazing Adam Gopnik piece as exhibit A) it seems clear to me that its designers made a clear and conscious choice to focus largely on two sets of stories: those of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and all those affected by their deaths; and those of the first responders and others who did such heroic work in the attacks’ aftermath. As Gopnik highlights, the terrorists themselves are present in muted and even intentionally opaque ways (such as their “last night” letter/manifesto, which at the museum is untranslated from the original Arabic), reinforcing that overarching focus on the victims and responders rather than the attacks’ histories and contexts.
To be clear, I don’t have any issue with a memorial focused on those two communities. Indeed, that seems to me precisely what a memorial should do: help remember those lost and commemorate those who worked on their behalf. Yet a museum is (or at least should be) something quite different from a memorial, and from what I can tell the 9/11 museum repeats the memorial’s work far more than would be ideal. Am I suggesting that a museum should include the kinds of complex and controversial histories I’ve written about this week, those of Afghanistan and the CIA, of wartime excesses and debates over Gitmo and torture? I most definitely am, as it seems impossible to me to study the events of 9/11 without considering both their antecedents and their aftermaths, both the contexts that contributed to them and the ways in which they have echoed into so much of our 21st century society and culture. The museum could certainly also include further information about the victims and their worlds, about the first responders and their efforts, about both the tragic and inspiring sides to the attacks—they too are unquestionably part of studying these histories. And studying is precisely what distinguishes a museum from a memorial, as I would define them.
To put the distinction simply, as I see it a memorial is a space for reflection and remembrance, while a museum is one for thought and analysis. As Americans we often seem to think that performing the latter actions is somehow anathema to the former and to emotions of all kinds, while I would argue instead that the two responses complement and enhance each other. We also, far too often, treat analysis as if it’s an insult to those memories and those on whom they focus, another offshoot of the “love it or leave it” school of patriotism about which I’ve written this week as well. Yet as with so much in our collective conversations, it seems to me that the answer is addition rather than competition—that finding a way to both remember and study, to do the work of both memorial and museum, should always be the goal of historic sites and spaces such as this one. As this site and all our collective spaces move forward, I hope we can find ways to do and model that additive work, and make these kinds of memorials and museums into vital parts of our collective conversations.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? How should we remember 9/11?
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