Curators make hard choices at 9/11 museum

NEW YORK Tue Sep 6, 2011 4:55pm EDT

1 of 8. A recovered FDNY Squad 252 helmet belonging to deceased FDNY member Kevin M. Prior is seen in this photograph before becoming a part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York August 22, 2011. Kevin Prior, a firefighter with Brooklyn's Squad 252, can be seen in video footage of the North Tower lobby recorded after the first plane hit getting ready to go upstairs. Responding to a mayday call sent out by fellow firefighters encountering breathing problems, he and five other members of the squad are thought to have been on a floor in the 20s when the tower collapsed. Prior's body was found three weeks after the attacks and buried on Long Island, but his mother was troubled that his helmet had not been returned to the family, and said as much in a television interview. An employee at the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner happened to catch the broadcast, recognized Prior's squad and badge numbers, and hand-delivered the badly damaged helmet to his grateful family. The museum, which occupies seven stories below the ground of the World Trade Center site--is still being built at the site of the fallen towers. It is due only to open in 2012, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Curators are making hard choices at the museum memorializing the September 11, 2001 attacks at the site of the World Trade Center's toppled twin towers, aiming to convey the horror of the event without trespassing into ghoulishness.

"We're not here to traumatize our visitors," said Alice Greenwald, director of New York's 9/11 Memorial Museum that is due to open in its underground home at the Ground Zero site next year on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.

"Monumental artifacts are one thing, but we also have a human story to tell," Greenwald said.

Some of the most potentially disturbing exhibits are being set aside from the main exhibition spaces in special alcoves to allow visitors a chance to decide whether or not to view it.

It is here that museum curators have placed material such as images of people plummeting from the burning towers after the buildings were struck by airliners hijacked by al Qaeda militants, and a recording of the measured voice of a flight attendant aboard one of the planes moments before her death.

For museum curators, deciding whether to include examples of some victims' painful final moments was one of their toughest dilemmas as they sought to pay tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed without piling more grief onto the living.

It's a familiar problem for people aiming to memorialize wars and atrocities.

"We're not just a history museum, we're also a memorial institution and so the tension that happens between commemoration and documentation is a flash point," Greenwald said in an interview at the museum's offices overlooking the ongoing construction of a facility that will occupy seven stories below ground at the World Trade Center site.

Greenwald is no stranger to these debates. For almost two decades she helped create exhibits at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington memorializing the murder of millions of people at the hands of the Nazis during World War Two.

'THE 9/11 STORY'

Greenwald and her colleagues are aware that there are countless objects that might overwhelm a visitor.

There will be photos of the 19 al Qaeda hijackers, although Greenwald said they will be presented as "criminals."

Another difficult question for curators was whether to include disturbing pictures of victims who jumped or fell from the towers. Excluding such pictures would be a serious omission, Greenwald said. The photos will be located in an alcove clearly marked with a warning and none of the people pictured are identifiable, she added.

"It is one of the aspects of the 9/11 story that if you didn't include it, you're not telling the story," she said.

In choosing audio recordings of the last words spoken by some victims, the museum avoided some of the most distressing calls to the 911 emergency phone number. "That's a form of human remains," Greenwald said. "We will include nothing that feels like a moment when we shouldn't have been there."

Instead, curators chose recordings with the permission of victims' families that show what Greenwald called the "exceptional nature" of many of those killed in the attacks.

This includes the remarkably composed voice of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, as she relays details of the bloody hijacking to colleagues on the ground in the minutes before the plane crashed into the North Tower.

The museum has acquired hundreds of items belonging to victims, survivors and first responders.

The significance of a horribly crushed fireman's helmet is obvious. Other items might be more subtle in their importance: dust-caked shoes, a crumpled wallet, clothing, a never-finished knitting project, a blackened doll -- all commonplace items that have taken on the air of relics.

The museum has been sculpted out of the vastness of the World Trade Center's foundations, and incorporates part of the slurry wall, originally built to hold back the waters of the Hudson River and which survived the buildings' collapse.

There will be a memorial exhibition for the 2,982 people killed in the September 11 attacks and in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center that were a prelude to the later event. The exit of the museum has been designed so that visitors emerge at the heart of the 9/11 Memorial -- cascading waterfalls set into the footprints of the fallen towers surrounded by bronze panels bearing the names of the dead.

"For every heart-wrenching story you have 10 stories about the goodness of human beings," Greenwald said. Referring to future visitors to the museum, she added, "They're going to come out with a lot to think about."

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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Comments (6)
To me, the most remarkable thing about 9/11 was the huge rush of fire personnel and police into the building – and the fact that we don’t find these acts of personal human courage to be extraordinary – we expect that our civil servants will act with exceptional honor and bravery. Our biggest tribute to these heroes is that we expected -and received- nothing less than a full measure of sacrifice. We hold our heroes in high regard, for we also hold the highest of expectations. This is the message that we showed the world, is that when our enemies attacked with viciousness and no honor, that we responded by showing the nature of our culture. Our enemies sought to cut out our heart with one swift blow, but that blow fell far short of the mark. It only served to engage and enrage the nation, and it shattered only the fetters that bound the dogs of war, and left undamaged our national spirit.

Sep 06, 2011 5:12pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
paintcan wrote:
The museum concept is disgusting. A simple memorial without the ghoulish details, any of them, no photographs of the perpetrators, no mangled effects, I haven’t seen the photos yet of most of them except I think of Atta once very early on. I have no desire or need to see any more of them. I don’t even want to know their names.

What s the point of listening to the last words of the flight attendant? Or of images of people falling from the building? For weeks after the event – the news channels couldn’t get enough of the images. Was the target audience so stupid, so dull, and unimaginative, that it couldn’t recognize the intense competition to show the most vivid images – in an attempt to capture the “iconic” image? There was money to be made, you fools.

Does 911 deserve such loving attention for an act of mass murder that has its equivalents throughout the world? Will the Iraqi’s be building a museum to the victims of the two wars – perhaps three wars – if one includes the Iran Iraq war?

I grew on up on vivid details of the concentration camps starting when I visited my Aunt in Long Island in the late 50’s and saw the first mention I had ever seen of them on a television show. It was an Ad starting with the opening of an oven door. We were children then, my sister and I. We weren’t Jewish and were living in Ohio where the subject hadn’t even been mentioned except to say that the Nazi’s killed people in Hospitals and old people, and the mentally “defective”. The Jewish issue wasn’t specifically mentioned specifically. But over the years that issue alone became the defining issues of “holocaust” studies. It seldom mentioned any other casualties of the Third Reich. It could also be presented in the most graphic images and not be considered pornography. Emaciated walking corpses were not unique to the death camps, nor to WWII and not even to civilians.

What the memorial will be is a tourist site for the self styled socially conscious. A kind of family values dead zone for people who actually love the details, enjoyed the show, and are just a little disappointed they can’t get more of it. And it is guaranteed to keep the blood on low boil for the foreign policy steam, hypocritical self serving propaganda value of it all and the sheer arrogance that can be maintained, for the price of the ticket.

The US is being manipulated by hucksters, PR experts and has no taste, no real self control, no true sense of self respect that isn’t manufactured on demand with special effects and production values for the gratification of it’s own pride.

Maybe the Lebanese have more sense after all. They built a nightclub on the site of the Shatilla massacre. Most people get tombstones. Many more – due to cemetery regulations get a stone flush with grade so the lawnmowers can pass over them easier.

W How about simply listing the names of the dead and enough with the obsessive devotion to the so-called artifacts. Done anywhere else anytime else or by anybody else and one would have reason to wonder why the survivor can’t leave the dead persons objects alone, in peace in the grave they didn’t get.

IT’S SHOWTIME

Sep 06, 2011 7:10pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
paintcan wrote:
The museum concept is disgusting. A simple memorial without the ghoulish details, any of them, no photographs of the perpetrators, no mangled effects, I haven’t seen the photos yet of most of them except I think of Atta once very early on. I have no desire or need to see any more of them. I don’t even want to know their names.

What s the point of listening to the last words of the flight attendant? Or of images of people falling from the building? For weeks after the event – the news channels couldn’t get enough of the images. Was the target audience so stupid, so dull, and unimaginative, that it couldn’t recognize the intense competition to show the most vivid images – in an attempt to capture the “iconic” image? There was money to be made, you fools.

Does 911 deserve such loving attention for an act of mass murder that has its equivalents throughout the world? Will the Iraqi’s be building a museum to the victims of the two wars – perhaps three wars – if one includes the Iran Iraq war?

I grew on up on vivid details of the concentration camps starting when I visited my Aunt in Long Island in the late 50’s and saw the first mention I had ever seen of them on a television show. It was an Ad starting with the opening of an oven door. We were children then, my sister and I. We weren’t Jewish and were living in Ohio where the subject hadn’t even been mentioned except to say that the Nazi’s killed people in Hospitals and old people, and the mentally “defective”. The Jewish issue wasn’t specifically mentioned. But over the years that issue alone became the defining issues of “holocaust” studies. It seldom mentioned any other casualties of the Third Reich. It could also be presented in the most graphic images and not be considered pornography. Emaciated walking corpses were not unique to the death camps, nor to WWII and not even to civilians.

What the memorial will be is a tourist site for the self styled socially conscious. A kind of family values dead zone for people who actually love the details, enjoyed the show, and are just a little disappointed they can’t get more of it. And it is guaranteed to keep the blood on low boil for the foreign policy steam, hypocritical self serving propaganda value of it all and the sheer arrogance that can be maintained, for the price of the ticket.

The US is being manipulated by hucksters, PR experts and has no taste, no real self control, no true sense of self respect that isn’t manufactured on demand with special effects and production values for the gratification of it’s own pride.

Maybe the Lebanese have more sense after all. They built a nightclub on the site of the Shatilla massacre. Most people get tombstones. Many more – due to cemetery regulations get a stone flush with grade so the lawnmowers can pass over them easier.

W How about simply listing the names of the dead and enough with the obsessive devotion to the so-called artifacts. Done anywhere else anytime else or by anybody else and one would have reason to wonder why the survivor can’t leave the dead persons objects alone, in peace in the grave they didn’t get.

IT’S SHOWTIME
This is a corrected copy – I have no proof reader and used specifically twice in one sentence – sorry. Enough is enough is enough – the developers didn’t actually want to devote so much space to the memorial originally it should be remembered. May they figured they can make the museum pay for that very expensive real estate.

Sep 06, 2011 7:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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