PublicHistory Too Soon? (Too Sad? Too Sensitive? Too Sacred?): The National September 11 Memorial and Museum

AHA Session 178
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Richard Rabinowitz, American History Workshop
Clifford Chanin, National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Jan Seidler Ramirez, National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Max Page, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Abstract

9/11’s meaning is still unsettled. Nonetheless, thirteen years later—an eyeblink in history’s measurement—a new museum tasked with fixing a first public draft of this evolving narrative has debuted in lower Manhattan. Most visitors will, or have come away with impressions likely to influence their understanding of this impactful September day for years to come.

Too Soon?” will convene several veteran participants in that institution’s creation in a discussion about the challenges informing the curation of the recently opened Museum. These arose not only from the contentious nature of the 9/11 terrorist attacks but also from the inherent nature of the artifacts collected to narrate this history and the ethics of displaying them at the World Trade Center site—perceived variously as a hallowed battlefield, an unplanned cemetery, and America’s launch-pad for the 21st century’s global war on terror.

From the outset, the Museum’s mission was destined to be complicated by its cohabitation with the outdoor memorial honoring the nearly 3,000 victims murdered on September 11, 2001. Stakeholders in the nascent Museum ranged from relatives and colleagues of the dead to traumatized survivors, displaced residents and businesses, rescue and recovery workers, investigative agencies, members of the military and government officials, each holding fervent passions and particular expectations, but none representing the tourists, students, heritage pilgrims and removed “others” who would comprise the great majority of the Museum’s audience.

Design constraints, too, were posed by the Museum’s insertion into the archeological void of the missing Towers, and by a federal mandate requiring preservation of the Trade Center’s in-situ vestiges and their accommodation into the visitor experience. The charge for architects and exhibit developers was to craft a reassuring pathway through, and a cogent narrative program within, this underground cavern of exceptional scale and raw character. For curators, the assignment was to gather authentic relics of the catastrophe—some of exquisite sensitivity, others of perplexing physical condition—and situate them inside this host reliquary. Unforeseen legal entanglements, conservation problems, and emotional hurdles emerged during the efforts to safeguard the authenticity of such materials.

A presentation of select case studies illustrating these, and other quandaries of display, provide a structure for commentary about the off-stage thinking and curatorial revisionism resulting in the inaugural version of the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

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