At Museum on 9/11, Talking Through an Identity Crisis

June 2, 2012
At Museum on 9/11, Talking Through an Identity Crisis
It seemed self-evident at the time: A museum devoted to documenting the events of Sept. 11, 2001, would have to include photographs of the hijackers who turned four passenger jets into missiles. Then two and a half years ago, plans to use the pictures were made public.

New York City’s fire chief protested that such a display would “honor” the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. A New York Post editorial called the idea “appalling.” Groups representing rescuers, survivors and victims’ families asked how anyone could even think of showing the faces of the men who killed their relatives, colleagues and friends.

The anger took some museum officials by surprise.

“You don’t create a museum about the Holocaust and not say that it was the Nazis who did it,” said Joseph Daniels, chief executive of the memorial and museum foundation.

Such are the exquisite sensitivities that surround every detail in the creation of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which is being built on land that many revere as hallowed ground. During eight years of planning, every step has been muddied with contention. There have been bitter fights over the museum’s financing, which have delayed its opening until at least next year, as well as continuing arguments over its location, seven stories below ground; which relics should be exhibited; and where unidentified human remains should rest.

Even the souvenir key chains to be sold in the gift shop have become a focus of rancor.

But nothing has been more fraught than figuring out how to tell the story.

The sunken granite pools that opened last Sept. 11 and that occupy the footprints of the fallen towers were designed as places to mourn and remember the dead. Yet nowhere on the plaza is there even a mention of the terrorist attacks that caused the destruction. The job of documenting and interpreting the history has been left to the museum, and it is an undertaking pockmarked with contradictions.

Alice Greenwald, the director of the new museum, and her team must simultaneously honor the dead and the survivors; preserve an archaeological site and its artifacts; and try to offer a comprehensible explanation of a once inconceivable occurrence. They must speak to vastly different audiences that include witnesses at the scene and around the globe, as well as children born long after the wreckage had been cleared. And many of those listening have long-simmering, deeply felt opinions about how the museum should take shape.

“Whose truth is going to be in that museum?” asked Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, a firefighter, died in the north tower.

Even the name — “Memorial Museum” — is something of a contradiction in terms. In the context of a memorial, for example, the 17-foot, two-ton crossbeam where Mass was held every day during the cleanup is a sacred relic, an icon that vibrates with emotional and ideological resonance. In a museum, this same hunk of iron is simply evidence. So it is with the photographs of the 19 hijackers: They are simultaneously documentation and abominations.

“Museums are about understanding, about making meaning of the past,” said James Gardner, who oversees the nation’s legislative archives, presidential libraries and museums. “A memorial fulfills a different need; it’s about remembering and evoking feelings in the viewer, and that function is antithetical to what museums do.”

Reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialize heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise.

No one anticipated how much.

Sifting Through Pain

As the former associate director and a 19-year veteran of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Ms. Greenwald knows a lot about ghastly things. Yet even that museum did not have to wrestle with the challenge of being built where the horrors had occurred and while the families of victims were still grieving.

Since being appointed director of the September 11 Museum in 2006, Ms. Greenwald has inherited much of the distrust some of the families feel toward officials involved in developing the site, particularly Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who at one point said that if he were a mourner, he would “suck it up and get going.”

In particular, many families are upset about a plan to place approximately 14,000 unidentified or unclaimed remains of those who died — typically bone fragments or dried bits of tissue — in the museum below ground. The repository will be controlled by the city’s medical examiner and sealed off from everyone but family members. Visitors will just see an outer wall inscribed with a quotation from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Seventeen family members have filed suit against the city as part of an effort to reopen the decision. They view it as degrading to set the remains in a museum below ground. Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother, Sean, a firefighter, died in the north tower, said the insensitivity was mirrored in the museum’s decision to stock its gift shop with $40 souvenir key chains engraved with the Virgil phrase.

“They’re marketing the headstones of our loved ones on key chains,” she said. “How disgusting is that?”

But to Ms. Greenwald, the decision to keep the remains underground represented an equally earnest effort to fulfill a longstanding promise to other families who had sought, above all, to ensure that the remains stayed at bedrock.

“It’s been a very difficult, fascinating and challenging process” to juggle competing visions of what the museum should be, she said.

Throughout, Ms. Greenwald reached out to the varied constituencies by inviting some of the most influential and outspoken players to assist the museum’s board. It was led by Mayor Bloomberg and included the first deputy mayor, Patricia E. Harris. Among the 11 family members on the roster was Debra Burlingame, who lost her brother, an American Airlines pilot, in the attack on the Pentagon. She had successfully led a campaign against a proposed international freedom center at ground zero that would have told the story of Sept. 11 in the context of a worldwide struggle for liberty. Also on the committee was Howard W. Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, the company that lost 658 employees, including Mr. Lutnick’s brother, in the attack.

Ms. Greenwald drew in an even wider circle by holding a series of discussions about topics like exhibiting disturbing material and handling human remains. It was an exhausting process, with dozens of conversations that solicited the opinions of at least 25 survivors and family members of victims; 55 nearby residents and business, community and government representatives; 7 preservationists; 12 uniformed rescue and recovery workers; 9 interfaith and multicultural representatives; 78 museum and educational specialists; 8 social service and counseling professionals; and 60 foundation staff members.

As the conversations continued, a subtle map of divisions surfaced that ran along class, geographic and political lines: New Yorkers found outsiders meddlesome; families of uniformed rescue workers were resentful of Wall Streeters’ moneyed influence; critics disdained those willing to compromise.

Ms. Regenhard, for example, called some of the participants “fat cats, V.I.P.’s and stuffed suits,” and said they represented “pure and simple tokenism” rather than genuine family input.

The New York City fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano, on the other hand, judged the conversations a success. “That doesn’t mean that everybody got what they wanted, but they did get heard,” he said.

Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, Ms. Greenwald, a small woman with red hair, has been widely praised for her curatorial judgment as well as for her diplomatic skills.

“She has handled this thing with sensitivity,” said Charles Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed in the attack and who attended the discussions. “She is the one who gave us all confidence in the whole process.”

Helping Ms. Greenwald was a kitchen cabinet of nine advisers, including Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural commissioner; Jane Rosenthal, a founder of the Tribeca Film Festival; and a handful of scholars like James E. Young, Edward T. Linenthal, and the Civil War historian David Blight. They met two or three times a year and served as both sounding board and touchstone.

Mr. Blight, who at one point considered writing a book about the museum’s creation, said the overriding question for him was what message visitors would take away: “Are they going to leave with any sense of why this happened and its consequences? Or will they be moved solely by the sheer power of the catastrophe? If it’s only the latter, then the museum is a failure.”

Difficult Decisions

Everyone agrees that it is the museum’s job is to tell the truth. The question, though, is how much truth.

The museum has more than 4,000 artifacts, from a wedding band to a 15-ton composite of several tower floors that collapsed into a stack, like pancakes, and then fused together. There are photographs of men and women jumping out of windows, burned and mutilated bodies, scattered and blood-soaked limbs, images so awful they tested the bounds of taste and appropriateness.

There are thousands of harrowing first-person recollections, and photographs and videos from survivors and witnesses, many of them raw. Many victims’ final phone calls were preserved. Flight 93’s cockpit recorder captured the hijackers’ last words and a flight attendant’s begging for her life.

Which of it should be on display?

“We have to transmit the truth without being absolutely crushed by it,” Mr. Daniels, the chief executive, said. “We don’t want to retraumatize people.”

Within months of settling into her office at 1 Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Greenwald invited Brady P. Gray, a disaster psychologist who consulted with the Fire Department after Sept. 11, to speak with the staff and advisers. He explained that hearing a recording could be more disturbing than seeing an image because it requires more imagination.

“The mind is left to create the illusion of what was taking place,” Mr. Gray said. “We personalize things that we don’t see so well.”

With those concerns in mind, curators reviewed hundreds of recordings. The family of Betty Ong, the flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the north tower, for example, gave the museum a tape of her calmly informing ground control of the terror transpiring around her.

“It’s the most remarkable demonstration of professionalism under duress that I think anyone will ever hear, and they wanted us to include it because they felt it said so much about who she was,” Ms. Greenwald said.

The family of Mary Fetchet, a member of the foundation’s advisory board, donated the recording of her 24-year-old son Brad’s last phone call from the south tower, telling her not to worry.

A third recording was of a 911 operator tenderly trying to comfort a woman during her terrifying final moments.

As she listened, Ms. Greenwald kept thinking of a comment made by the museum consultant Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “I’ll never forget it because it just ripped me apart when she said it, that we need to look at this kind of material as another form of human remains,” Ms. Greenwald said. “We need to use it judiciously.”

In the end, they decided to make Brad Fetchet’s and Betty Ong’s voices available, and to archive the other. “This was not meant to be a public moment,” Ms. Greenwald said of the 911 call. “We have to be careful not to be exploitative, to be sensitive to what’s appropriate in the setting of a public museum.”

Over time the team also pulled back further from exhibiting graphic carnage. Curators followed a guideline used by the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which commemorates the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 people. “We don’t show body parts, but we show blood,” Kari F. Watkins, that museum’s executive director, said in an interview.

Ms. Greenwald explained that there were other ways to convey horror, as when it is reflected in the faces of witnesses. “The historical reality is that there were body parts littering Lower Manhattan,” she said. “We do not feel the need to display that.”

Particularly upsetting items drew additional review by the program committee, as well as by advisers and staff. Opinions about whether to include images of trapped victims leaping from the flaming towers were mixed. Mr. Cassano, the fire chief, was opposed.

“I didn’t think it was respectful to show people jumping out of windows,” he said, adding that the Fire Department’s memorial book excluded such pictures. “I thought it was too graphic.”

After repeated discussions, Ms. Greenwald and Mr. Daniels decided to use photographs, but not video, and only if the person jumping could not be identified.

Still, the material can be devastating.

“Even all of us who work here, when I see bits of the exhibition,” Mr. Daniels said, pausing for a breath, “it’s very powerful.”

When Mr. Gray talked to staff members, he discovered that some were already showing symptoms of severe stress from listening to audiotapes and oral histories and reviewing photographs hour after hour, day after day.

“There was literally this ‘Aha’ moment,” Mr. Gray recalled. “Workers were oblivious to the fact that new problems at home and in their relationships were influenced significantly by the work they were doing.”

The lesson that Ms. Greenwald took away was to offer visitors choices rather than sending them on “a forced march.”

So the architectural design includes “early exits” along the museum route, enabling distressed visitors to duck out without having to pass through the entire exhibition. Disturbing material will be sectioned off with partitions or put in alcoves. Those who want more information can stop at one of several kiosks to gain access to the museum’s archives.

The emotional journey that each visitor will travel has been painstakingly orchestrated by Ms. Greenwald’s team, from the moment someone enters the museum’s glass pavilion on the plaza and descends to the schist bedrock seven stories down. Gradually, the story is rolled out. It begins on Sept. 11, 2001, with an 8 foot by 10-foot-7-inch photograph, taken at 8:30 a.m., of New York’s sublime skyline, with the World Trade Center towers stretching to the Crayola-blue heavens.

“It’s the world before,” Ms. Greenwald said. “Innocence.”

About 4,000 of the museum’s 110,000 square feet of public space are devoted to honoring the victims, with artifacts and photos of each of the 2,977 people who died on Sept. 11 and the 6 who died in 1993, when terrorists planted a bomb in the Trade Center garage.

The tumultuous events of Sept. 11 in the air and on the ground in New York; Washington; and Shanksville, Pa., unfold through oral histories, timelines and photographs.

“We decided to start with what people saw that day,” Ms. Greenwald said, explaining that familiar images — like those flashed hundreds of times on television and in print — would be easier to process.

To give visitors time to recover, Ms. Greenwald said the designers built in some breathing room. A more cerebral subject — the history of Al Qaeda — follows the intensely emotional recounting of the day.

There are also exhibits about the construction of the towers, the wrenching posters of the missing, the outpouring of tribute art.

The account of the recovery and response starts with Sept. 12, 2001, and includes the start of the war in Afghanistan. It ends on May 30, 2002, when the final object was cleared from ground zero, Ms. Greenwald said. Other events and issues, like the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission, are treated thematically, as a series of questions dealing with, say, the tension between civil liberties and national security, or investigations into what happened. The job of selecting which moments to highlight, potentially a political brawl, has been given to a computer that will project an ever-changing variety of news articles on a wall, as chosen by a statistical algorithm.

At the end, visitors will confront what is essentially an archaeological excavation, a section of the soaring 60-foot-high slurry wall that was built to hold back the Hudson River when the World Trade Center site was designed. “You become a witness yourself,” Ms. Greenwald said.

Nearby, the monumental artifacts have already been installed: bent beams from the spot where the nose of a 767 jet, Flight 11, first rammed the north tower at 8:46 a.m. and reconfigured the reigning global order; the smashed fire truck of Ladder Company 3; the crossbeam where recovery workers gathered for daily Mass; and the last item to be removed from ground zero, the 60-ton, 36-foot steel column from the south tower that had served as a makeshift shrine.

Choices remain. Absent from the space so far are any “composites,” the chunks of compressed floors. Many officials and family members say they are the objects that perhaps best capture the destructive force unleashed that day.

“This is something that people 50 years from now should see,” Mr. Cassano, the fire chief, said.

Some families are concerned, though, that despite assurances and tests, composites could contain body matter.

“Museum officials thought this was a very interesting exhibit,” said Diane Horning, who lost her 26-year-old son, Matthew. “To us, it was human remains.”

The Faces of Terror

Like a line in a sacred text, a single sentence in the museum’s guidelines generated volumes of conflicting commentary: Exhibits should explore “a factual presentation of what is known of the terrorists, including their methods and means of preparation.”

That sentence was one of the recommendations offered by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation before it handed off responsibility for the memorial and museum to the foundation in 2006. The two pages of guidelines — composed by the corporation’s 27-member museum advisory committee, after consulting with seven advisers and reviewing 1,070 public comments — were adopted by what is now known as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation as a formal planning document.

The Talmudic-like analysis began immediately. How, for instance, should the museum handle the flood of information about the terrorists’ private lives and plotting that the government’s mammoth investigation was uncovering?

The museum was in a unique position to draw perhaps the most detailed and nuanced portrait of the men, but that was precisely the problem. Officials were wary of being seen as trying to do too much to humanize murderers.

By 2008, Jan Ramirez, the museum’s chief curator, said, “We retreated from that kind of in-depth presentation.”

Only evidence that proved the hijackers’ guilt would be displayed. “There is not a shred of psychoanalysis about what their issues might have been,” Ms. Ramirez explained. “You would never want to create a type of interest in their lives that would potentially promote some other zealot.”

Explaining the terrorists’ motivations aroused similar concerns. To some families of victims, asking what caused Sept. 11 “is literally a profane question,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and a participant in the conversation series. “It is like blaming the victim.”

Other families, Ms. Greenwald said, “literally took me by the lapel and said, ‘Don’t whitewash this, you’ve got to tell the story.’ ”

Yet making sense of the attacks is hard to do without delving into the grievances of the attackers. In the end, Mr. Daniels said, they reasoned: “Al Qaeda was responsible. Therefore we looked at the rise of Al Qaeda, and that was in the ’80s.”

Thus the museum will begin the tale in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where radical Islamic fighters, who gained power with the support of the United States, later gave Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda safe haven.

“Ultimately this is not a museum that is created or designed by committee,” Mr. Daniels said. “We’ll listen to everybody, but in the end we have to make the decision.”

After a pause, he added, “There’s almost a comfort level that we’re going to get criticized, no matter what.”

The tug of war between memorializing and documenting is encapsulated in the angry debates over the question of displaying the hijackers’ photographs.

To Mr. Daniels the museum’s primary obligation is to preserve “the history of what happened,” and so he took it for granted that the photos would be there.

But portraying perpetrators and enemies is rarely simple, as Mr. Blight pointed out. Most of the narratives displayed at Civil War battlefields started to mention slavery as a cause of the conflict only about 10 to 15 years ago.

Mr. Daniels learned that lesson on Sept. 10, 2009, when, during a presentation, he mentioned the photos and the possibility that some of the hijackers’ words would be posted in the museum. When he opened The New York Post the next day, he discovered that its editorial board had denounced the idea.

Mr. Cassano said he too was opposed. “The story has to be told,” he said, but added that he did not think the hijackers “should be given the honor of having their pictures in the museum that showed everybody else who was killed.”

The issue was then put on the consultative conveyor belt. Ms. Greenwald devoted a planning conversation to it. She, Mr. Daniels and a handful of staff members visited the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum, which had confronted similar concerns. Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma initially opposed showing a picture of Mr. McVeigh, who was convicted in 1997 and executed in 2001, the director, Ms. Watkins, said. But to her it was important to show “how unbelievably normal Timothy McVeigh looked, like the guy living next door.” In the end, his picture was displayed.

Historians had additional reasons for wanting to use the hijackers’ photographs. “There are all these conspiracy theories, that it was Jews who did this or the C.I.A.,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, but “we know exactly who they were.”

The conspiracy fantasies persist. “I’m still receiving crank phone calls suggesting our son is still alive,” said David Beamer, whose son, Todd, was one of a handful of men who tried to overpower the hijackers on Flight 93 before it crashed in Shanksville. “I do believe that it’s important and appropriate that names, faces and voices are part of the reality of that day.”

When the program committee voted on whether to play the cockpit recording of the hijackers’ voices, Mr. Daniels reported, everyone there said yes.

The decision on the photographs was more labored. They decided to shrink the images, from 6 by 4 inches to 2 by 1 ½ inches, the faces a little bigger than a thumbnail. And they will have evidence stickers from the F.B.I. attached.

During a visit to Washington, Ms. Ramirez discovered that the F.B.I. had been struggling with similar questions about its own in-house Sept. 11 exhibition. One option organizers considered was to display the hijackers’ photographs on a ledge so that visitors could avoid a head-on confrontation. Though the agency ended up posting them on the wall, museum officials borrowed the idea to place the photos on a slanted board, in a narrow partitioned alcove. People “would have to turn physically and look down to see them,” Ms. Greenwald said.

In that space will be documentation of their activities, including quotations from their final statements, acknowledging their participation. “We’re allowing them to indict themselves as mass murderers, not giving them a platform for propaganda,” she said.

Ms. Greenwald said her staff calculated that the history of Al Qaeda and the hijackers made up only a tiny fraction of the exhibition space.

Ms. Burlingame captured the whirl of sentiments. Despite doubts, she ultimately agreed that the hijackers’ photographs should be shown because “we need to tell the story of 9/11 truthfully and fully.” But, she added, “One of my own brothers called me to say, ‘I don’t want to see their faces.’ ”

Evolving History

Many of the decisions Ms. Greenwald and her colleagues are making today may be unmade in the future. Sensibilities are sure to be different 10 or 20 years from now. Future curators will choose differently as time passes, anguish eases, and America’s position in the world shifts.

As Ms. Greenwald said, “This is a museum without an ending.”

For the present, though, the National September 11 Memorial Museum is emphasizing a story of hope over despair, and the resiliency and selflessness of the rescue effort, not its mishaps.

That is by design. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s original guidelines specifically directed the museum to chronicle the “outpouring of heroism, sacrifice and human ingenuity during, and in the aftermath of, the attacks.”

How, then, to handle less-than-heroic moments?

For example, the communications breakdowns between rescuers that contributed to the day’s cascading catastrophes and a death toll that included 343 firefighters. Or the looting that followed, which outraged downtown residents.

The Sept. 11 museum will include the communications failures, Ms. Ramirez said, but they will not dominate the story of how police and firefighters responded. The same goes for the thefts. Oral histories complaining about them are part of the museum archives, Ms. Ramirez said, but not in the permanent exhibition. The more they listened, she said, the more they realized that those incidents were “irrelevant to the story we’re telling.”

A similar approach guided the museum’s treatment of angry reactions the attacks generated. Ms. Ramirez said it was not appropriate for a museum to support anger or militarism as a response. So photos of protesters advocating violence, for example, will probably be included only in video projections that capture a range of reactions, enabling viewers to see that this “sentiment then yields to another sentiment and another sentiment,” she said.

The staff acknowledges that at points it has ceded authority and taken a step back from creating the definitive master narrative, functioning instead as an aggregator.

“It’s not always an authoritative museum,” Ms. Greenwald said. “It’s about collective memory.”

A museum needs a strong core of verifiable facts ...

accompanied by pictorial, video and academic reference.

All history is narrative, essentially. But the more solid, forensic facts you can present, the more respect your museum will command.

If the hard evidence is thin on the ground - or there's an information black hole at the heart of content - canny visitors will pick this up.

Black Hole

The memorial is a veritable "black hole" where everything goes down the drain: truth, capital, and humanity. We need accountability to stop the hemorrhage.

On the ground

'If the hard evidence is thin on the ground...'

You mean like, say, a passport purportedly belonging to a hijacker that supposedly fell to the ground at Ground Zero, singed but otherwise undamaged?

What about the gaping holes in the 'collective memory'?

'It ends on May 30, 2002, when the final object was cleared from ground zero....Other events and issues, like the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission, are treated thematically, as a series of questions dealing with, say, the tension between civil liberties and national security, or investigations into what happened.'

I wonder, do they say anything about the suspicious stock trading in the days leading up to the attacks? Anything about the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, and the role they had in securing passage of the Patriot Act, and how it turned out they actually originated in a U.S. military facility? Anything about the Bush administration's prolonged stalling over having an investigation, and how the co-chairs of the eventual commission later said that they had been 'set up to fail'?

And how about round-the-clock screenings of Bush sitting on his ass in a classroom at Booker Elementary after Card had informed him the U.S. was 'under attack'?

'It's about collective memory.' Which is not to be confused with the truth (as numerous historical studies into the 'collective memory' of past events have made clear), especially regarding a subject where mass media have played such an overwhelming role in shaping public perceptions--and where the cultivation of such perceptions has had such enormous propaganda benefits for certain political agendas of the elites.

At least she admits, 'This is a museum without an ending,' and 'It's not always an authoritative museum.'