PRINT September 2014


the National September 11 Memorial Museum

Snøhetta, National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, 2014, New York. Foreground: Michael Arad and Peter Walker and Partners, National September 11 Memorial, 2011. Photo: Jeffrey Tanenhaus/Flickr.

BEFORE ANALYZING the recently opened National September 11 Memorial Museum, let us remember its prehistory—the memorial proposals that were never considered, the museums that were censored.

In 2002, for example, sociologist Andrew Ross suggested that the best tribute to the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center would be “a new, genuinely mixed-income neighborhood that could capture, in the hustle and bustle of the living, the full sociological variety of those who died on 9/11.” Ross’s idea was eminently reasonable and humane, but, given the nature of the economic forces that have long dominated the organization and use of space in New York, it was also doomed to obscurity. For as could already be predicted in November 2001—when the rebuilding of downtown was turned over to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a new superagency with condemnation authority and the power to circumvent local regulations—the current redevelopment carries forward the process initiated in the late 1950s and ’60s with the construction of the original WTC, which spearheaded attempts to shape Lower Manhattan in the interests of global finance and local real estate.

The censored museums were the International Freedom Center and the Drawing Center, both selected by the LMDC in 2004 to occupy a proposed World Trade Center Memorial Cultural Complex on the southwest quadrant of the memorial plaza. The IFC was to be a new institution that its planners hoped would fulfill one of the goals professed in the memorial’s mission statement: “to strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom.” The center intended to sponsor discussions about the “foundations of free and open societies” and document worldwide struggles for civil and human rights. Topics would have included the genocide of Native Americans, slavery and racism in the United States, and, according to at least one report, information about the curtailment of civil liberties in the US since 9/11. It may well be true, as one opponent of the museum argued, that 9/11 was not about freedom, but the IFC promised to provide substance to a word that, in the wake of the attack, was being evacuated of meaning, made banal and reduced to a synonym for free trade. The Drawing Center, a nonprofit museum under the astute directorship of Catherine de Zegher, would have relocated from SoHo to the memorial site. The LMDC described it as an organization “committed to the discipline of drawing, one of the most elemental and universal forms of human expression.”

In 2005, both museums fell victim to the very erosion of rights the IFC had aimed to challenge. In early June, a red-baiting campaign mounted by a group called Take Back the Memorial and launched by an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal accused the IFC of disturbing the purity of sacred ground and therefore of insulting the dead and their families. On June 24, the front page of the New York Daily News declared that the presence of the Drawing Center at Ground Zero would be a “disgrace” because the museum had shown art critical of the US, particularly of its occupation of Iraq and practice of torture. The museum, the News said, would “violate” us “again.” That same day, Governor George Pataki announced that “we will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice or courage that the heroes showed on September 11th.” The Drawing Center withdrew under pressure just before the governor, mobilizing the logic of the state of exception—protecting freedom by restricting it—barred the IFC from the WTC site in order to make it possible to create “an inspiring memorial.” To honor the dead properly, we were told, we must surrender our democratic right to critical speech and subjugate ourselves to official discourses of truth.

THE NATIONAL SEPTEMBER 11 Memorial Museum complies with this demand. As a result, the memory it constructs conceals a massive forgetting—which, from a Freudian viewpoint, is no unintentional failure of remembrance but rather an active process of omitting, which is to say, repressing. The museum’s repressions are so manifold, the story it tells so circumscribed, that it seems driven by a passion for ignorance. To an extent, it forgets by means of the kind of reaction to traumatic loss that Eric L. Santner, writing about the German politics of memory, calls narrative fetishism—“the construction and deployment of a narrative consciously or unconsciously designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place.” The narrative fetish tries to deny trauma by “simulating a condition of intactness” or by conveying uplifting, self-serving messages.

In this light, consider Pataki’s insistence on an “inspiring” memorial. Or the museum’s assertion on its website that it “attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity.” Consider also the strategic placement of three of the museum’s artifacts, two of them the most monumental in its collection. Visitors enter the museum, which occupies the former location of the Twin Towers, at ground level, passing through a glass pavilion designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta. Proceeding from the entrance hall to the underground Davis Brody Bond building that houses the museum, they descend first to the lobby and then, via a sloping ramp, to original WTC bedrock, where the main exhibits, divided into a memorial section and a three-part historical section, are located. The very first exhibit, visible from the entryway, consists of two immense steel trident columns from the facade of the North Tower. A placard describes them as symbols of the savagery of the attack and also, by virtue of their survival, of “fortitude in the face of tragedy.” The lobby showcases a model of Fritz Koenig’s 1971 bronze sculpture The Sphere, originally located between the Twin Towers. Damaged on 9/11 but structurally intact, it, too, is interpreted as “a lasting symbol of resilience.” Halfway down to bedrock, the ramp turns at a sharp right angle to form a balcony that overlooks an exposed section of the original WTC’s slurry, or perimeter, wall, which rises sixty feet from Foundation Hall, the museum’s largest space and the one where, it is imagined, “visitors will end their Museum experience, contemplating the themes of strength and endurance.” Built to keep the Hudson River from leaking into the WTC’s basement, still standing though in need of repair, and described as “a testament to survival and determination,” the wall is accompanied by an unpersuasive comment from the new WTC’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind, likening it to “the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life.”

Despite these idealizing assertions of the WTC’s symbolic wholeness, the museum is dominated by displays of the buildings in fragments. Mangled, shattered, and pulverized architectural remains hang from ceilings and walls and sit on platforms and pedestals, some in vitrines: an elevator motor, a crushed segment of the North Tower’s radio and TV antenna, a fuel-tank remnant, steel from floors ninety-six to ninety-nine of the North Tower, a South Tower column, a single windowpane, a river-water valve, and a set of box-column remnants that mark the footprints of the towers. As the director, Alice M. Greenwald, reminds us, the museum does not simply house artifacts but is built within an architectural artifact itself. The amount of space allotted to the Twin Towers’ architecture far exceeds that devoted to “In Memoriam,” the memorial exhibition where visitors look at photographs of the human victims and listen to recorded verbal testimonies in relative isolation from the architectural displays.

Elsewhere, however, the museum does not separate the buildings and their former human occupants but erodes the division between the two. In part, this reflects the physical reality of the attack, which, like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, rendered people to dust—producing, as architect and scholar Mark Wigley has observed, “an unprecedented blurring of traditional distinctions” between human and architectural remains. But insofar as monumental buildings are objects of identification by human subjects, such physical blurring has a psychic counterpart. Wigley, examining “the intense fantasies people have about buildings in general and the twins in particular”—the way “we use buildings to construct an image of what we would like the body to be”—elucidates how terrifying it was when, on 9/11, collective-unconscious associations between body and building were literalized in an event that destroyed both, the consequence of which was a traumatic loss of the nation’s illusion of invulnerability and geographic exceptionalism with regard to violence. The museum protects itself against the loss not only by simulating the WTC’s intactness but by soliciting viewers’ identification with it as a victim, an identification made possible by endowing the structure with the innocence of the human victims.

Perhaps the desire to turn away from the trauma by reidealizing the buildings as pure victims explains the enormous amount of attention focused on their anatomy. It is surely responsible for the astonishing omissions in the museum’s history of the WTC. The towers are largely portrayed as technical feats: The elevator motor was part of an “innovative” elevation system, the slurry wall an engineering triumph. A sign informs us that “the novel engineering and architectural solutions [the developers] devised revolutionized skyscraper construction.” Repeated emphasis on the towers’ height and massiveness is exemplified by a chart showing the “World Trade Center by the Numbers”: sixteen acres of land, 110 stories, 1,730 feet from street level to the top of the television mast, 43,600 windows, twelve million square feet of office space, etc.

Part two of the three-part historical exhibitionis titled “Before 9/11” and, according to official descriptions, explores “the background leading up to the events.” Its opening display is an original presentation model of the WTC. Featured quotations describe it as an icon of New York, which it was, and also, in former Port Authority director Austin Tobin’s words, as the “United Nations of Commerce.” With the exception of one photograph depicting a protest by small-business owners against the WTC, the museum ignores the buildings’ social history—which includes the obliteration of an Arabic neighborhood, known as Little Syria, that once occupied the site; strong local opposition to the construction of the complex; the displacement of about eight hundred small businesses and tens of thousands of employees; the local government’s subsidization of private profit; and, encompassing all of these, the fact that the WTC project ushered in a period of unprecedented social polarization that was engineered by New York’s transformation into a corporate city, a polarization whose most visible symptom was the appearance of masses of homeless people on the city’s streets. In the same way, the museum avoids recognizing that, for many of the world’s peoples, the towers symbolized not freedom but the cruelties of US-dominated neoliberal capitalism and especially its financial system. The towers, that is, were not only targets but agents of destruction, both local and global.

The museum’s prodigious amnesia is repeated in its approach to other topics in the historical exhibition. For example, aside from sketchy biographies of Osama bin Laden and other individual terrorists, the section about Al Qaeda in part two divulges only the barest facts: Militant Islamism began during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; bin Laden founded Al Qaeda and, following the Persian Gulf War, began to advocate against American troop presence in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Muslim sites. No mention is made of the long history of US intervention—invasions, bombings, assassinations, coups—in the Middle East, which reaches back to the 1920s and picks up speed after 1949, when the CIA backed a military coup in Syria. Part three deals with “the aftermath and continuing implications of 9/11” but provides virtually no information about the “war on terror,” the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, dead and wounded Afghan and Iraqi civilians and US soldiers who are also victims of 9/11, remote-controlled killings, the persecution of Muslims and other Arab immigrants, America’s production of a population of “detainees” who have no rights, restrictions on civil liberties, and increasing government surveillance and secrecy. Several large rooms display documents and artifacts related to rescue, recovery, and relief operations in the wake of the attack and to sympathetic responses from other countries. The problem of “how we understand [9/11’s] significance and place in history,” however, is confined to a small alcove that concludes the historical exhibition. There, six questions are posed: How do we know what happened? Who should be held accountable? How are victims identified? What are the ongoing health effects? How should we remember? How can America protect its citizens? Below each question is a small, haphazard display of documents including, under “How can America protect its citizens?,” a couple of photographs of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, an antiwar flyer, and a photo of President Bush signing the USA PATRIOT Act, with, however, no accompanying information about the wars or the act.

WHAT ARE THE ethico-political consequences of all this forgetting? Likening psychic repression to a censor’s alteration of the text of a book, Freud says that the aim of both is to defend against danger by “actively modifying reality.” Needless to say, such modifications are “not in the interests of truth.” Repression in the individual can therefore itself become dangerous, producing “an ever-growing alienation from the outside world.” The National September 11 Memorial Museum’s collective repressions are similarly pathogenic. For although it claims that it wants “to inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance,” the museum constructs a narcissistic memory that impedes its own goal. Hiding 9/11’s traumatic disturbance of the nation’s self-image, the museum concerns itself only with the violence we have suffered and supposedly triumphed over and, turning away from the rest of the world, resists trying to understand (which is not the same as forgiving or justifying) the psychic, political, economic, and cultural conditions of religious terrorism that contributed to the barbaric attack. By contrast, a critical memory, one that is not fully identificatory and so can pursue such understanding, is the basis of responsible action toward answering what is surely the most important question raised by 9/11, the one the museum does not ask: how to make the world less violent for everyone.

Rosalyn Deutsche teaches modern and contemporary art history at Barnard College, Columbia University.