Tuesday, 25 March 2014

TUESDAY NEWS DAY: NATIONAL SEPTEMBER 11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM

BY: BRITTNEY SPROULE

Happy Museum Week everyone!

While one of our Museum Week goals here at Musings is to try and highlight the important cultural contributions and cultural value of smaller, perhaps lesser known museums, I couldn't help but deviate slightly from that mission with a museum news story I felt was quite significant. Also, there's nothing us museum folk like more than to see the opening of a brand new museum in the headlines! As such, I give you this article from Time.com, announcing the May 21, 2014 opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City, at the former site of the World Trade Center.

Outer facade of National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Inside you can see the two tridents made out of salvaged metal
from the World Trade Center towers.


To give you a sense of the Museum's intents and purposes, here is an excerpt from the 9/11 Memorial Museum's mission statement:

"The National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening  on May 21, 2014, will serve as the country’s principal institution for examining the implications of the events of 9/11, documenting the impact of those events and exploring the continuing significance of September 11, 2001."

I encourage you to check out the full mission statement here.

For a helpful intro to the Museum and the thought processes behind its construction as well as the representation of its subject matter (and the related challenges of such a task), check out this interview with the Museum's Director, Alice Greenwald:


One thing I find particularly interesting about Alice Greenwald is, according to the link attached to her name above, she used to be Associate Museum Director for Museum Programs for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. As such, I'd certainly be curious to know how her experiences working with the difficult knowledge exhibited by the Holocaust Memorial influenced her work at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Or, how her experiences with these two Memorial Museums differ from each other -- I wonder how presenting difficult, emotionally charged information about an event like the Holocaust differs (or not) from presenting information about/commemorating 9/11?

Talk about heavy jobs.

Also, I wonder if it has been particularly challenging for 9/11 Memorial Museum curators thinking about how to frame the information/objects presented in the museum since 9/11 is a fairly "recent" event in terms of the greater historical picture. Many of those who the event directly affected (survivors, families of survivors, relief workers, etc.) are still very much alive and will likely be visiting the museum. How does one, as a curator, do justice to respectfully and truthfully representing an event like 9/11 for the people who were directly affected by 9/11 but also for the general public? As Greenwald says in her interview, how does one find balance between commemoration but also education in regards to subject matter such as this?

Exhibition gallery featuring one of the first fire trucks on the scene
after the WTC towers fell on 9/11.

Here's a behind the scenes tour of the interior of the Museum from 2013, lead by the Museum's President, Joe Daniels and Director Alice Greenwald.



I'm particularly fascinated by the 9/11 Memorial Museum space. While this footage is taken during construction of the Museum, the digitally created images of the finished interior show the inside as reminiscent of a construction zone --very industrial, a lot of exposed concrete and metal, ramps connecting different levels. This is likely intentional, to acknowledge the destruction of Ground Zero, the resulting chaos of the scene after the towers fell, and the resulting clean up process. Do you think this is an effective way of contributing to the overall experience of the 9/11 museum-- by utilizing space to evoke certain feelings, emotions, reactions?

Not only is the Museum located on the site of the former WTC towers, but it also incorporates a lot of the remnants/debris from the towers in both its artifact collection and within the very structure of the Museum building itself (along with other types of artifacts as well - like oral history accounts, photographs of victims, etc). Does incorporating these WTC building remnants right into the museum itself help (or not) create an even more touching, disturbing, or perhaps even awe-inspiring experience for visitors? If the Museum was located somwhere else in NYC, not directly on the WTC site, would it be just as impactful?

World Trade Center Cross, now located in the 9/11 Memorial Museum

I leave you now with a particularly controversial artifact, the World Trade Center Cross (above), a piece of debris from the WTC towers which happened to take on the shape of a cross. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, many Americans saw this as a Christian symbol of God's presence and of the existence of hope in a tragic situation. Others, however, felt this view was exclusionary to non-Christians and that this piece should not be displayed at a national memorial site. Feel free to read about this particular piece here, as it raises some very interesting questions about representation in museums.

As always, we welcome you to share your thoughts and comments about anything discussed in this post or others!

4 comments:

  1. This is a good, thought provoking discussion topic Brittney, and I'm glad you brought it up! I hadn't realized the museum would be opening so soon. I think there is a lot of symbolism found within the space of this museum, and done so purposely to evoke an emotional response. The controversial cross artifact is interesting in the way it is presented; at first when I saw that picture that is linked to the article you suggested (of the cross against a white sky) I immediately thought the cross was displayed in front of the museum. With this initial thought, I agreed that the blatant symbol of Christianity standing outside the museum, as a cross would be on a church, might be exclusionary to other groups. However, when I went back to watch the imbedded video, it appears that the cross is actually inside, simply another artifact. Once I realized that, my opinions changed. I believe that using the cross as part of the story is acceptable, but having it as a symbol of the memorial museum would have been inappropriate. This period of about 10 minutes of my opinions being reformed really pressed upon me the importance of how items in museums are displayed and what messages they deliver.

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    1. I agree with you, Meaghan, about the Trade Center Cross. While it was perhaps a little too overpowering a symbol to place right in front of the 9/11 monument, I think placing it within the museum and presenting it as but one part of the story of the event is perfectly acceptable. I think it represents an important aspect of how people deal with tragedy by turning to faith, and how this can unite people in a time of crisis - regardless of what specific religion or spirituality their faith stems from.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Brittney -- your reflections on the space of the museum brought up many interesting questions about exhibition design in conjunction with (and independent of) artifacts. I think the dissonance of the construction images will have a powerful effect when in the permanent space, but I wonder if there will be any minimally-designed spaces in the museum for reflection, just as the Holocaust Memorial Museum has incorporated.

    Also in comparison with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I think the 9/11 Museum will have many similar challenges not only in appropriately representing the events of September 11 in a museum setting, but also in grappling with the concept of "the victim" and competitive memory with other tragic historical events (see Michael Rothberg for more on this in relation to the Holocaust). I was thinking about this when I saw a post on The Uncatalogued Museum in January about the concept of family, and the blogger Linda Norris noted that the 9/11 Museum had just announced that families of the victims will not pay the $24 admission price to the museum. The author brought up several very pertinent questions in relation to this announcement, including: What constitutes a victim? How is a family defined? And how long into the future does the concept of "victim's family" last?

    The difficulty of defining a "victim" (and their family) emerges clearly here, as everyone has very different experiences of and coping mechanisms with trauma. It will be interesting to see how this will be interpreted in the 9/11 Memorial Museum when it opens -- and how it will change over time.

    (Here is the link to that blog post: http://uncatalogedmuseum.blogspot.ca/2014/01/families-part-2.html)

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    1. Katherine- thanks for your comment!
      In terms of a reflective space, I know there is an "In Memoriam" exhibition at the 9/11 museum...so perhaps there will be something within that exhibit? Not sure if they will have a space, as you said, with a similar function to the one the Holocaust Museum has. However, I'd be very surprised if they didn't.

      I'm glad you brought up the discussion about admission of victims free of charge to the museum...I too found this very interesting. You took the words right out of my mouth - what constitutes a victim? Technically, is not all of New York a victim to this tragedy? Or perhaps even all of America? The world? If anything, the museum should be free for all or lower their prices in general and not offer any special discounts...or perhaps have a pay-what-you-can day to give visitors who wish to visit often the chance to do so without stretching their wallets too thin.
      This raises an interesting point - although the museum is dealing with this difficult knowledge, it is after all a public institution that needs to make money to sustain itself. I think it was estimated in one of the articles I read that the museum will cost about $1 billion a year to operate. There has been a few issues regarding the cost of constructing the museum as well. I think this creates a tension between the public's emotional connection with the museum because of its content and the museum as an institution that, at the end of the day, needs to make ends meet.

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