The 5 Most Contentious Exhibits in New York's Fraught September 11 Memorial Museum

The 5 Most Contentious Exhibits in New York's Fraught September 11 Memorial Museum

Rendering by Squared Design Lab, Courtesy of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
A rendering of the 9/11 Museum pavilion
by Benjamin Sutton
Published: June 4, 2012
Given the hundreds of officials overseeing its creation, the thousands of victims' family members keenly watching its development, and the millions in New York and beyond who witnessed the events it commemorates, the level of scrutiny on the National September 11 Memorial Museum is unheard of, both in its scope and its sensitivity. A fascinating New York Times feature on the development of the massive 110,000-square-foot subterranean institution's permanent exhibition outlines the contraditions inherent in creating a display that both memorializes and historicizes, showing how such tensions — and input from innumerable parties — have guided curatorial decisions. In so doing, the article also more or less reveals exactly what will be included in the Museum's permanent exhibition when it opens — at a date that has been delayed again due to disputes over its financing. Here are the five most contentious exhibits visitors to the September 11 Memorial Museum will likely find.


Perhaps nowhere do the institution's dual functions as a museum and a memorial clash more clearly than in the decision to keep remains of those who died in the attacks — chiefly bone fragments and pieces of dried tissue — on-site, which sparked protests from many victims' families. A vault housing 14,000 unidentified remains operated by the medical examiner of New York City will be available only to relatives of the deceased; it will be closed to other visitors, who will simply see the outer wall of this mausoleum of sorts, which will be inscribed with a quotation from Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time." A decision to sell keychains bearing that inscription (for a hefty $40 through the museum's online store) was met with understandable outrage.


Another bitterly contested conflict revolved around the treatment of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks of September 11th in the display. Some victims' family members were virulently opposed to the suggestion that their photographs be included, fearing that to do so would glorify their actions. But after the Museum's director, Alice Greenwald, consulted the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum — where the photograph of Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 killing 168 people, is on display — the program committee voted to include images of the hijackers, cockpit recordings of their voices, and other documentation of their activities.


Among the most unsettling and iconic news images broadcast on September 11th were the countless shots of people jumping from the World Trade Center buildings — the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu used such footage exclusively to make up his short film for the "September 11" omnibus movie. The idea of including such imagery provoked protests from Salvatore J. Cassano, the commissioner of the New York City fire department, and other members of the staff and program committee. In the end, however, Greenwald and Joseph Daniels, CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation, decided to include the arresting images — but only in cases where the jumper was unidentified.


Though many recordings of phone calls — from people in the tower to their families or to 911 operators — will be included in the museum's archives, only a select batch will be featured in the galleries. This decision was partly informed by the potentially far more visceral impact of recordings as opposed to images or videos. "The mind is left to create the illusion of what was taking place," said Brady P. Gray, a disaster psychologist Greenwald consulted. "We personalize things that we don’t see so well." Accordingly, a recording of a victim's last call to his mother and a flight attendant's calm message to air traffic control will be included, while a 911 operator's comforting words to a victim will not.


As with the question of whether or not to include hijackers' photos, victims' families had strong and opposite opinions as to how the conflicts that created the conditions under which the September 11 attacks were planned and carried out should be addressed. For some, even thinking about contextualizing the terrorists' motives "is literally a profane question," according to National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership president Rabbi Irwin Kula. "It is like blaming the victim." Others impressed upon Greenwald the need to represent the fullest narrative possible, and some even "literally took me by the lapel and said, 'Don't whitewash this, you've got to tell the story.'" A history of the terrorist organization stretching back to 1979's Soviet invasion of Afganistan — when the U.S. supported Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in hopes of containing the spread of communism — will follow the section of the museum recounting the events of September 11.

There is no current projected opening date for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, though it won't be until 2013 at the earliest.