The National September 11 Memorial & Museum: Memory, Remembrance, and Capitalism

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened to visitors one month ago. I’ve been watching the responses, reading the critiques; it’s been fairly weird for me—not because I had a loved one murdered in the attacks, but because I was a Special Collections Intern at that museum for ten months in 2010. I digitized photographs, wrote profiles for the memorial exhibit, updated metadata, measured and photographed objects in our collection, digitized ephemera, sat in on meetings with victims’ families, and sat in a location which allowed me to eavesdrop on exhibitions meetings. I learned about the narrative they were constructing, and why they were doing it that way. (“We’re just telling the story,” one member of the Exhibitions team told me, “and the story is a complicated one, with parts that many think should not be included in this museum. But we have to include them—it would be dishonest not to.”)

Victims’ families are unhappy with the layout of the museum, the extremely literal nature of some of the pieces on display (the half destroyed ambulance, for instance), and the fact that they were not contacted to approve aspects of the memorial exhibit. And pretty much everyone is unhappy with the gift shop. First I want to address the criticisms regarding the victims’ families and loved ones.

Between the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, there are approximately 3,000 dead. That is 3,000 people, each with mothers, fathers, spouses, significant others, brothers, sisters, friends, mentors, nieces, nephews, and children. And with each and every one of those people is the remembrance of a life suddenly and tragically cut short. And that, I think, cuts to the core of this issue: remembrance.

Memorial museums are, of course, about memory. They are institutions constructed to capture, maintain, and give narrative to a memory. As a historian, I think the concept of intentionally constructing a historic narrative as national canon is horrifying (I’m a melodramatic academic; I regret nothing), but as a public historian, I understand the necessity of creating that narrative. To have the responsibility of being the people to invent, construct, or cement that memory, that narrative? That’s no easy task, and it’s a task which will always be flawed because history by nature defies a singular narrative. And, in my very humble opinion, the September 11 Memorial and Museum is staffed by dedicated, responsible museum professionals and public historians who understand the importance of honesty and clarity, and who understand the gravity of what they are doing; they’re not just creating and opening a museum, but they are constructing a memory.

The memory they’re creating and commemorating will live beyond the memories of those who remember 9/11, and those who intimately remember the people murdered on that day. Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that the criticism—controversy, even—surrounding the set-up, layout, and narrative of the museum is a matter of personal remembrance versus constructed collective memory. I obviously begrudge no one their anger over the manner in which their loved one’s murder is remembered, but I do have to ask: could this base issue of memory vs. remembrance have been avoided at all? Is that even an option in the context of mass commemoration? I’m going to leave this one open ended.

And then, of course, there is the gift shop, not to mention that $24 entry fee (from which victims’ families are exempt). I’ve seen a lot of talk about how sickening it is to walk into this sacred space only to see a gift shop selling expensive jewelry, tchotchkes, and refrigerator magnets. And I agree, it is distasteful, and for a grieving family member already distraught over the nature of the memory constructed by the institution, it’s a slap in the face. However, there is one glaring issue that criticisms of the gift shop continuously neglect to address: the fact that this museum receives no government funding for its operational costs.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum must pay for insurance, maintenance, on-site climate control, off-site storage, off site-storage climate control, the preservation of everything from 13-year-old receipts to damaged steel beams, the JFK storage hangar, staff salaries, the rent for the office space, et cetera, et cetera. The museum has extremely high ongoing costs; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that these expenses come to a figure of at least $60 million annually. That money has to come from somewhere, and one of those somewheres, unfortunately, is the gift shop.

While the shop’s wares may be a sickening site to grieving patrons, I would argue that it is more sickening that the American government—which launched an oil war over 9/11—refuses to fund the institution dedicated to its memory.

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