Re-Remembering 9/11: The New Ground Zero Museum

The way we look at 9/11 is about to undergo a radical change. Quietly, as the city focuses on the

The way we look at 9/11 is about to undergo a radical change.

Quietly, as the city focuses on the ground zero mosque and Condé Nast’s planned move to the neighborhood, Joe Daniels has been working on a $700 million monument to the dead. Mr. Daniels, president of the foundation behind the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at ground zero, is doing more than simply planning a museum-he and his team may well be reframing the dialogue about that day in a surprisingly forthright and confrontational way.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is widely expected to immediately become one of the city’s largest tourist attractions, projected to draw between five million and seven million visitors when its first phase opens in September 2011. But far from being the toothless, tasteful tribute to American greatness many expected after an earlier incarnation, the International Freedom Center, was abandoned five years ago, the revamped museum promises an unblinking account of the violence and terror of Sept. 11, 2001. Its choices could define American thought about 9/11 for decades.

Artifacts will tell the story, from a huge fire truck, one-half of it pristine, one-half charred and crushed by the bridge collapse, to a pair of bloody high heels donated by a survivor who lacerated her feet as she fled the imploding towers.

Visitors standing in a 120,000-square-foot cavern below where the north tower once stood will be confronted with not just the names but the faces of the 2,982 fallen. Artifacts will tell the story, from a huge FDNY fire truck, one-half of it pristine, one-half charred and crushed by the bridge collapse, to a pair of bloody high heels donated by a survivor who lacerated her feet as she fled the imploding towers. The museum will show the hijackers-and they will show pictures of people leaping from the towers, not to horrify visitors but to make sure the story is as complete as possible. Visitors will have to descend the actual granite “Survivor’s Staircase” to end the tour.

produced by Amir Shoucri

If this seems blunt, organizers said, it is for the sake of posterity. “What we’ve tried to do is to keep our fingerprints off the story as much as possible,” said Steven Davis, the museum’s architect. “We’re trying to tell the truth.” For Mr. Daniels, president of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Foundation since 2006, this is a chance to make a well-worn story fresh. People “are going to come in tremendous numbers when we open, and the question is what do we do with that opportunity, vis-à-vis 9/11?”

Not this, say some historians and critics, who already are concerned. David Simpson, author of 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, said there’s a potential “the museum will not educate, it will simply shock,” and generate so much emotion it will be a shrine, not museum.  “Without in any sense diminishing the horror of 9/11, it isn’t the single event of this history. It just isn’t…. The more you focus on the immediacy of that day, those 102 minutes or whatever that was, the more risk there is of losing sight of everything else.”  Alice Greenwald, director of the museum, described its planned content in an article for Curator Journal in January as “both graphic in its violence and provocative in its implications.” Too harsh? Too bathetic? Too sentimental? Will it celebritize the dead? Let the debate begin.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a project that has been largely ignored since 2005, when plans for the IFC were abandoned amid bitter controversy. Family groups such as Take Back The Memorial saw the IFC’s plans to include exhibitions on incidences of tyranny or genocide throughout history as a defamation of sacred ground. Disputes delayed any progress for years. Now, construction workers are racing to complete the oak-tree-filled Memorial Park above-ground by the tenth anniversary of the tragedy-an unmissable deadline, organizers say-and a portion of the subterranean museum 70 feet below is expected to open exactly one year later.

If they make their deadline, the museum will open just a month before the next presidential election, and Jeffrey Melnick, a cultural historian who teaches on 9/11 at Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., expects it to reopen old wounds. “I can’t think of another museum where the stakes are so high right away,” he said, placing it above even the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which had decades of perspective when it prepared its narrative. “It’s not so clear with the 9/11 memorial because there’s not an easy message. There would have been an easy message in 2002, 2003, but post-Iraq, post-Katrina, I think the sense of complete American blamelessness has been overturned.”

Richard Tofel, former president of the IFC and now general manager of the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, thinks its commitment to sentiment will see the museum relegated to the level of the memorial at Pearl Harbor: A moving tribute that adds nothing to the intellectual debate around World War II. “They know that there’s a national conversation going on about 9/11,” he said, “and they are perfectly content not to have it centered there.” But there are still “issues we need to grapple with,” he said.

“There’s a fine line between bearing witness and doing so in such a way that some people might find exploitative,” said writer Jay McInerney, whose 2006 novel The Good Life dealt with New York in the days following the tragedy. Nonetheless, “New York is always focused on the immediate present and the immediate future. In this case … I think there’s a greater danger in amnesia than there is in exploiting or misrepresenting the events of that day.”

Certainly, there are theories, and even trends, in the museum/curatorial world on how to document and display tragic events. Thirty years ago, the gold standard for remembrance was the postmodern simplicity of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The more recent trend (typified by the exceptional Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where Ms. Greenwald, the 9/11 museum’s director, spent much of her career) has been to use artifacts and a plainly presented narrative to make visitors feel something they might rather ignore: namely, grief.

Mr. Daniels and his team do view this museum as an opportunity for emotional catharsis as much as intellectual debate. Wearing Nantucket red slacks, his left arm sporting a tattoo of a “Don’t Tread On Me” rattlesnake, Mr. Daniels spoke to The Observer at One Liberty Plaza last week with the firmness of one used to dealing with conflicting views and agendas, not to mention the Port Authority. “I think the idea of the IFC was a powerful one,” he said, but inappropriate for “the site where all 2,752 people died, and 1,100 of [their bodies] never were identified.” (Totals of the dead differ: The museum will salute, on its wall of photographs, those who died at ground zero, plus those who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 9/11 Pentagon bombing, the passengers of United 93 and all the crew of the airplanes involved.)

The low-key Mr. Daniels has a high-profile résumé. Before joining the 9/11 Memorial, he was at the Robin Hood Foundation, where he oversaw the Library Initiative, a pet project of Mayor Bloomberg’s that sought to upgrade libraries in underperforming New York schools. (Mayor Bloomberg is chairman of the foundation and a major donor to the memorial and museum, along with David Rockefeller, AIG, American Express, Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan Chase). Prior to Robin Hood, Daniels was a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and practiced law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

“Unlike other museums of history, this one is being created while … those who experienced it are still so close to the subject matter,” Mr. Daniels said in a speech 18 months ago. And for that reason, if anything, the museum enshrines the deceased. “It is essential that, as much as possible, we tell this history through first-person narratives.” 

“We don’t want to leave people filled with hate and wanting revenge,” said Amy Weinstein, an oral historian and museum curator who watches the construction every day from a window on the 20th floor of One Liberty Plaza. (The construction’s sudden speed “really is mesmerizing,” she said.)  Ms. Weinstein has spent the past four years recording stories about the victims told by their friends and family, audio which will play nonstop in the gallery featuring the photographs of each of the dead. Ms. Weinstein said she is seeing to it that the effect is one of joy, not horror. “We don’t want to re-traumatize visitors,” she said.

The “recorded remembrances” are prized by family groups, and placing them at the start of the museum tour is key to how the 9/11 museum has avoided the uproar and family-member intercession that doomed the IFC. Mary Fetchet, whose son died in the towers, and whose group “Voices of 9/11” helped the museum assemble the photos, said that to list names on a stone wall (as will be done in the above-ground memorial park) was not enough. “It’s only be showing how they lived that you can really understand who these people were,” she said.

At ground zero, mention of the hijackers will be restricted to a special part of the museum devoted to the “antecedents of 9/11,” a decision that Mr. Daniels used to illustrate the tension between education and remembrance. “Of course, you have to identify the perpetrators,” he said. “On the other side, there’s certainly folks who believe that because of the sensitivity of the site, how can you show images of the hijackers within the same museum where we’re going to be showing,” in a separate section, the images of the 2,982 victims? But “this is not a 10-year institution,” said Mr. Davis. “This is a 100-year institution. And in 100 years, there won’t be anyone alive who remembers 9/11.”

But, said Mr. Simpson: Being reminded never to forget is “not the same as being told how to remember.”


Re-Remembering 9/11: The New Ground Zero Museum