The 9/11 Museum Has A Problematic Legacy. Can It Be Saved?

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From the second the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened within the spring of 2014, the scathing criticisms and opinions started rolling in.

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As then-BuzzFeed News editor Steve Kandell, whose sister died on Sept. 11, described in “The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction,” the museum was “the logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy.”

Washington Post artwork critic Philip Kennicott wrote that the museum expertise “isn’t history, it’s spectacle,” plunging guests into “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing on every television screen in America.”

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Other reporters, critics and early guests equally pointed to a bevy of issues: the commercialism of the museum, the Islamophobic rhetoric within the museum’s discussions of terrorism and its few makes an attempt to offer context to the occasions of 9/11.

Visiting the museum now, it’s clear these public criticisms had little impact on the museum, and never a lot has modified in seven years. The museum is constructed round remnants of the unique World Trade Center towers, giving guests an intensely bodily and tactile expertise. Displays and placards emphasize the towers’ majesty and architectural ingenuity. Using eyewitness experiences, artifacts, and video and audio footage, the centerpiece of the museum’s “historical exhibition” recreates the morning of 9/11, all the way down to the minute. With simply cursory mentions of 9/11’s difficult legacy — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. as a surveillance state, Islamophobia and racism, the power well being issues of 9/11 first responders, amongst many different points — there are only a few moments of confronting uncomfortable truths. 

The inside of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, United States, on Oct. 12, 2017. On the left is the "slurry wall

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The within the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, United States, on Oct. 12, 2017. On the left is the “slurry wall,” which protected the unique World Trade Center towers from the Hudson River. On the fitting is the Last Column, the ultimate remaining piece of the towers, which first responders stored intact throughout the restoration and excavation efforts and adorned. (Photo by Manuel Romano/NurPhoto by way of Getty Images)

It ends in an excessively simplistic and uncritical narrative, selling an extreme sense of patriotism and nationalism — paradoxically, very like what occurred instantly after 9/11 itself. As the 20th anniversary approaches, the museum is dealing with an existential disaster and monetary woes because of its reliance on vacationers. (The controversies surrounding the museum’s planning course of are additionally the topic of a divisive new documentary.) Several students who’ve studied the museum and different kinds of memorial museums advised HuffPost the museum is stuffed with essential issues, like its lack of context. There are additionally contradictions in its approach, comparable to attempting to seem apolitical whereas, deliberately or not, presenting guests with a extremely political narrative, and seeming to be torn between its twin roles as a memorial and historic museum.

“There’s a hypersensitivity to what kinds of statements the museum can make because it is also a memorial museum,” stated Marita Sturken, professor of media, tradition and communication at New York University. “So that really constrains what it can do as an institution, in part because it feels very beholden to family members. Many, but not all, feel a sense of ownership there. So I think that is really the fundamental basis for its timidity as an institution to make sense of the event itself, because part of making sense of that event is also to show how the people who were killed that day, their memory was marshaled into two devastating and brutal wars. And that’s obviously a very painful, difficult issue.”

For many students, the museum’s most problematic elements originate from its give attention to the day itself, with comparatively few areas that contextualize the occasions.

“I think that the creators were trying to avoid politicizing and historicizing 9/11 by really focusing on the day. But it created this highly political and historicizing experience,” stated Amy Sodaro, affiliate professor of sociology on the Borough of Manhattan Community College. “This really intense focus on the minutes and the hours of 9/11 ends up kind of giving no bigger context, and so, avoids all of the difficult questions and problems and issues that 9/11 has raised.”

In response to those criticisms through the years, the museum’s leaders have defined that it’s primarily meant as a spot for guests to recollect the lives misplaced and bear witness, a message that’s additionally emphasised all through the museum. Before the pandemic, the museum supplemented its bodily exhibitions with public panel discussions and different occasions delving into 9/11’s legacy (and throughout the pandemic, these occasions have been digital). But the students say that approach is inadequate as a result of that programming received’t reach the majority of museum guests: vacationers who will seemingly solely go to the museum as soon as for a few hours. Instead, the museum has an crucial to offer rather more of that context in its everlasting and bodily assortment.

I fear that busloads of younger college students come and go to the museum leaving with a way of the horror of 9/11 however little to no alternatives for historic, contextualized, nuanced conversations concerning the terror assaults.
Tamara Issak, assistant professor at St. John’s University and creator of “How Does It Feel to be a Problem at the 9/11 Museum?”

The sections of the museum that target the political context of the assaults body terrorism as a simplistic “us vs. them” concern and emphasize Americans’ “unity” and “solidarity” within the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In addition, there are solely temporary mentions of the Islamophobic and racist assaults that Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans, and Americans of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian descent confronted after 9/11.

The museum additionally does little to distinguish between the violent extremists who perpetrated the assaults and Islam itself. Consequently, it creates a dangerous conflation of terrorism with Muslim identification — a theme that Tamara Issak, assistant professor at St. John’s University, has documented in her analysis, together with in a paper entitled “How Does It Feel to be a Problem at the 9/11 Museum?”

“The individual parts of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum brought together make a persuasive whole that presents a very particular narrative of Sept. 11 that, intentionally or not, stereotypes Muslims,” she wrote in an e mail.

In addition, the museum’s give attention to particular person tales and eyewitness accounts has truly turned all of them into one overarching narrative, which inadvertently tells guests methods to really feel and reply, stated Sarah Senk, affiliate professor of tradition and communication at California State University Maritime Academy.

“I’ve argued in something I’ve written that it’s less about education and more about indoctrination,” Senk stated. “There are these signs that say: ‘WE INVITE YOU’ and it’s, like, in all-caps. When I saw them the first time, I was just imagining the Uncle Sam poster.”

What does ‘never forget’ imply after 9/11 — how on Earth can we overlook one thing that 2 billion individuals noticed reside, captured on digital camera, and one thing that’s been disseminated on this unimaginable scale? I believe for this reason I believe 9/11 as a selected occasion fascinates me over different occasions.
Sarah Senk, affiliate professor of tradition and communication at California State University Maritime Academy

Senk’s analysis on the museum has centered on two interactive parts: a digital guestbook and a recording studio (each now suspended because of the pandemic) for guests to share their responses to the museum and their very own 9/11 tales. Some of these messages have been featured in outstanding areas of the museum.

“On the face of it, if you go in, it looks like it’s this really democratic thing, where it’s inviting everybody to offer their testimony,” she stated. “The goal was to not have a history by the victor narrative. The goal was actually to have this dialogic museum where the description and the feelings about events could change over time, and they would keep recording that and keep adding it to the collection.”

Yet, over the various instances she has visited the museum for her analysis, she observed that the testimonies by no means actually modified.

“Even when you have this endless collection, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get nondominant accounts of the story — and especially if the museum itself is structuring, like, what you’re feeling for you, without you knowing it.”

As a end result, “the act of remembering” turns into “this really political thing, where it’s like, you’re a good citizen, you’re a good person — if you come here and remember in a certain way,” she stated.

Inside of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Inside of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

According to Issak, the museum’s audio tour equally presents guests with a selected story, “even though the tour is at pains to create a full-circle narrative of Sept. 11.” 

“The narration is more focused on imparting a sense of closure than a sense of historical context,” she stated. 

When requested if there have been different comparable examples or fashions for the 9/11 Museum to observe, Sturken defined it’s common for museums to mix memorial and historic components. But the 9/11 Museum is uncommon in doing it on such a grand scale and making it “a commercial enterprise.” 

Sodaro stated she has been impressed by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which “tells the story from slavery all the way up to mass incarceration today and really leaves you with the understanding that the legacy is ongoing.” 

“That, to me, is one of not very many examples of memorial museums that I can think of that do a really good job in connecting the past to present and showing visitors the ongoing reverberations of the past,” she stated.

For essentially the most half, the students had a tough time pointing to an equal instance. And a few of them posited that it could be uniquely difficult to encapsulate 9/11 in a museum as a result of it was such a singular and extremely public occasion.

“When you think about things like Holocaust Remembrance Day, there’s a clear-cut message about ‘never forgetting’ or ‘never again,’” Senk stated. “And it’s also about remembering events for which a lot of material evidence was destroyed. So what does ‘never forget’ mean after 9/11 — how on Earth do we forget something that 2 billion people saw live, captured on camera, and something that’s been disseminated on this unimaginable scale? I think this is why I think 9/11 as a particular event fascinates me over other events.”

Similarly, Sodaro stated that in different memorial museums she has studied, “most of them focus on these violent pasts that were long and unfolding and, you know, in many cases, attempted to be hidden.” By distinction, 9/11 “was so spectacularly public.”

Some of the students stated the museum’s creators might have benefited from ready longer to construct it. But in addition they concluded it was in all probability unattainable, given each the size of 9/11 as an occasion and the high-profile technique of creating the museum.

As Sodaro noticed, by being billed “as a national museum, from the start, it was tasked with telling the official story and having to navigate and negotiate with all of these different stakeholders,” she stated. “I think the smaller the museum, the more grassroots it is, the better they usually are at addressing the difficult tasks and making connections to the present in ways that make people really uncomfortable.”

Twenty years later, it’s more and more extra crucial for the museum to confront uncomfortable truths.

“I worry that busloads of young students come and go to the museum leaving with a sense of the horror of 9/11 but little to no opportunities for historical, contextualized, nuanced conversations about the terror attacks,” Issak stated.

Several of the students advised it could be exceedingly tough for the museum to vary, given its present monetary scenario — and since including complexity could be incompatible with the museum’s present patriotic narrative and circumscribed timeline.

“If you say, ‘OK, let’s go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Let’s go back to U.S. investment in Saudi Arabia,’ each step backwards really produces a narrative that is much more complicit. It’s not about some innocent nation that was attacked out of the blue,” Sturken stated. “The museum has a very patriotic, uncritical stand, so in a certain sense, it can’t coexist with a historical analysis that looks at the complicity of the nation, before and then after.”

A video of former president Barack Obama shows on a monitor at the exhibition "Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden" at the 9/11

A video of former president Barack Obama reveals on a monitor on the exhibition “Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden” on the 9/11 Memorial Museum on Nov. 7, 2019, in New York City.

It’s telling that presently, the museum’s particular exhibition is concerning the 2011 U.S. army raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The tone of the exhibit typically takes on that of an journey novel, detailing the methods of the army and intelligence officers concerned. At the tip of the exhibit, there’s a video of talking-head interviews with numerous U.S. officers, ending with former President Barack Obama speaking concerning the ingenuity of the mission, as if to tie all of it up in a single tidy package deal.

It’s indicative of how the museum usually handles most of its content material that isn’t instantly concerning the morning of 9/11. The sections of the museum centered on the aftermath of 9/11 get increasingly more surface-level as they move ahead in time. For instance, there’s a whole lot of element concerning the excavation and restoration efforts in 2001 and 2002, however a lot much less element for newer occasions. As guests go away the historic exhibition space, one of many final shows is a wall of examples of 9/11 commemoration efforts all over the world, as much as 2011 and 2012. All of those level guests towards neat solutions, slightly than impart the extra difficult actuality: that the legacy of 9/11 shall be lengthy and proceed to evolve.

​​”How do you keep in mind one thing nonetheless unfolding? It’s such an important query, and I believe for me, that’s the dilemma of, like, 21st century commemoration and the way it differs from a number of the earlier occasions,” Senk stated.

The dilemma of time is one which not solely the museum, but additionally our tradition at giant has to deal with, Sturken stated.

“How do we, in general, as a nation and society, define the timeline of this event?” she stated. “If we’re just going to define it as this one spectacular, tragic day, then we will learn nothing from it. It should be one of the goals of such an institution that people come away from it having to learn something beyond that it was a tragic loss of life.”


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