9/11 Enters the Realm of Museum
Friday, May 23, 2014
If journalism is the first draft of history, “museumification” is probably the last. So OTM producer Meara Sharma and I went to mark that moment for 9/11, on the opening day of the museum in its name built on the footprint of the twin towers.
Upon entering, we encounter those who saw 9/11 from afar, an estimated ⅓ of humanity. Recorded voices of people from across the country and around the planet recall where they were and what they felt as the image of the World Trade Center in flames seized television screens worldwide. The sounds of witnesses soon blend into the voices of those personally affected, men and women, and young children reciting the names of the loved ones they lost.
In one room, photographs of the dead covered the walls. Many look like wedding photos; one woman is even wearing a tiara. There’s a database providing information about each victim, and Brooke speaks with a woman who found her deceased cousin amid the names. “Everything we’re seeing here, we saw live on TV,” she says. “It’s strange.”
We come upon a vast atrium where a quote from Virgil is set in raised stone against a sea of blue tile: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Around us, broken objects from the towers and soaring pieces of twisted metal sit like sculptures in a sterile gallery. A fire truck from the day looks almost pristine from the front, but its back is a mangled mass of wire. It’s hard not to be reminded of the work of John Chamberlain, or Claes Oldenburg. As abstract expressionists; they strove to imbue their art with emotion. There’s exceptional pain in these charred remains, as well as a sense of grace.
Eventually we come to the room filled with the most disturbing material: the perspectives of those on the ground, in the moment. A security guard leads us through a revolving door, and suddenly we’re immersed in sirens and police reports, images and video of the destruction, calls for help and stories of those who escaped. It’s like being dropped back inside the horror and total confusion of that day.
There are still tougher places to go. One alcove plays the final phone calls made by those on flight 93, and another displays photos of people in the towers who chose to jump, rather than burn. We see them at that moment of decision, and then plummeting, floating, frozen in mid-air. On the walls are quotes from those who looked on, from below. James Gilroy remembers one woman: “She had a business suit on, her hair all askew. This woman stood there for what seemed like minutes and then she held down her skirt and jumped off the ledge. I thought, how human, how modest, to hold down her skirt before she jumped. I couldn't look anymore.”
Interestingly, though the visitors certainly were solemn, we noticed few tears. Maybe after more than a decade of anniversaries, the national mantle of mourning no longer suits the time. After all, the city and the nation have seen many catastrophes. This was a big one, but perhaps, more importantly, it was our catastrophe. 50 years from now, it'll be simply a catastrophe. And it's in places like these that future generations will experience it. What that experience will be like, for them, we can’t possibly know.