The 9/11 Memorial Museum doesn’t just display artifacts, it ritualizes grief on a loop

Once you pass security, which is as strict as at an airport, everyone inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. The barking guards, now as fundamentally a part of American life as baseball and apple pie, are behind you and passing through this familiar indignity becomes part of the museum experience itself, which is all about sharp contrasts of mood and meaning, and the basic antinomies of life in a democracy that is also rapidly becoming a security state.

The museum itself is below ground. Visitors enter through an airy pavilion (designed by the innovative Norwegian firm Snohetta) built close to the two square and cavernous waterfall pits which are the official memorial to the destruction and death that came from the skies on Sept. 11, 2001. The impressive, ominous, and austere memorial designed by Michael Arad opened almost three years ago, in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The museum opened last month, and is intended as an educational, experimental supplement to the memorial.

But it is far more than a supplement. It is structured like our memories of the day, a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing on every television screen in America. It also overwhelms — or more literally undermines — the dignified power of Arad’s memorial by inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.

This is, alas, the apotheosis of what the “experiential” museum has become in America. The exhibits, created by Thinc Design, extend many of the ideas better known from the work of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the firm that created the displays at the Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The goal — achieved and surpassed — is to subsume educational material in an emotional narrative, punctuated by over-scaled, emotionally fraught objects, amplified by every architectural, cinematic, literary and religious tool available.

It is a stew of the basic metaphors of Western Civilization, and in the end you realize that this isn’t just a museum trying to be a quasi-sacred space for reflection, it is a new religion, fully articulated and perfectly adapted for our distracted, self-involved, media-saturated world. Sprawling over 110,000-square feet, with vast, cavernous spaces that reach down to the depths of the original footings of the old World Trade Center, this is the great, subterranean cathedral of America Militant, Suffering and Exceptional.

Mugs, T-shirts, scarves and other souvenirs for sale have triggered controversy at the National September 11 Memorial Museum. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

Nothing is left to chance. First, visitors descend escalators past a photograph of the old World Trade Center towers, carefully juxtaposed with a stunning view through large glass windows of the newly risen Freedom Tower. Then light yields to darkness and another juxtaposition: Snatches of voices are heard in a burbling din of horror and confusion. The words — expressions of shock, anguish, dismay — are projected on vertical panels in multiple languages. Then another set of panels show photographs of faces silently wracked by the same emotions. This tightly controlled passageway leads to a stunning view into an enormous open space dubbed the “Foundation Hall,” with the original concrete slurry wall still in place. It has been buttressed by a new wall behind it, but the visual impact is powerful: The 64-foot tall structure, studded by support ties, still seems to hold back the ground water and the nearby Hudson, and offers visitors an ominous and monumental connection to the giant structures that were brought down by the terrorists of al-Qaeda.

Noise and silence; darkness and light; surface and depth; death and resurrection; a fortress-like wall holding back elemental torrents of grief — these are all emotional triggers, fundamental polarities of experience, deeply soaked in allegorical, spiritual and especially Christian meaning.

But the descent has only just begun. Lining wide ramps that bring you even deeper into the pit are stark reminders of the attack, a dedication marker placed when the building was constructed, images of the homemade flyers placed by people who lost loved ones, a much-degraded concrete staircase that was used by survivors to flee through the Vesey Street exit. The careful, almost minimalist placement of these objects mimics the display of sculpture in a contemporary art museum, but also the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic church. Just to drive the point home, as you reach the lowest level of the atrium, a quote from Virgil is emblazoned large on the wall: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Classicists have had a field day with this heavy-handed and utterly bizarre borrowing from “The Aeneid.” In its original context, the “you” refers to two young Trojan warriors — male lovers — who have just slaughtered enemy soldiers in their sleep. As one professor told the New York Times, “the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial.”

The quotation is attributed to the “Aeneid,” but the name Virgil has particularly Christian overtones, from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” where the pagan poet leads a spiritual tourist through hell and purgatory. In any case, this isn’t about literature, it’s a cheap invocation of the cultural authority of Virgil’s name to give a veneer of legitimacy to the theology of suffering and rebirth contained in the educational and memorial galleries you’re about to enter.

A labyrinth of suffering

Most of the educational material and the bulk of the museum’s “collection” are contained in a maze-like space that also requires lining up and waiting for entrance. Here we relive the events in detail, minute by minute. Because there were four planes, two towers and two horrifying moments of architectural collapse, the various timelines proliferate and overlap and replay the events from multiple perspectives. Repetition is the essential thing: We suffer the trauma again and again in a way that inflates our sense of participation in it. This isn’t history, it’s spectacle, and it engulfs us, makes us a part of it, animating our emotions as if we were there, again, watching it all unfold.

The sacrifice of first responders, their professionalism and selflessness, is central to telling the story of 9/11, as is the tragedy of lives cut short in the name of an obscene religious ideology. But the place to contemplate the nobility and sadness of that day is above ground, where the names of those who died are inscribed on the square rims of Arad’s memorial.

The museum display is about something different, an amplification of emotion that feels, at times, strikingly similar to religious ritual, to the perpetual reliving of the tragic moment that structures some versions of Christianity, especially the musical and theatrical Passion plays performed during Lent. The line between documenting the improvised spirituality that defines our contemporary habits of collective grief — the teddy bears and piles of flowers and candles brought to the site of loss — and reenacting those rituals for a ticket-buying, experience-craving, voyeuristic museum audience becomes fuzzy, and discomfiting. In one gallery, the designers have re-created some of the makeshift memorials, with pictures and flickering candles, which sprang up around Manhattan in the days and weeks following the attack. Dust collected from the site, stored in a plastic fruit-juice bottle, serves as both an odd historical object and a still-potent sacred relic.

Architecturally, the space feels like a catacomb, and small alcoves, like radiating chapels, display the more graphic and horrifying material (images of people jumping from a building engulfed by fire). One striking display is a shop window from a store called Chelsea Jeans, preserved with its $29.99 sale sign and cheap sweatshirts thickly coated with gray dust and ash, locked in a moment of perpetual, ghostly horror.

Catharsis and controversy

The atrocities of Auschwitz and the Cambodian prison of Tuol Sleng are memorialized in museums that have striking power because they are preserved on the exact site, in the same buildings, that witnessed so much suffering. But memorial museums remain a problematic hybrid form, with an unstable balance between education and emotion. Often they are activated not just by haunting reminders of the victim, but continuing anger at the perpetrator. Without exceptional restraint, they can catalyze new and ugly forms of nationalism.

It’s no surprise, then, that the designers of this museum have found themselves embroiled in controversy. Is it appropriate for a memorial museum to have a gift shop? Should it charge admission? Have they adequately distinguished the al-Qaeda perpetrators from faithful, peaceful Muslims?

Some of these crises, especially the gift shop debacle, could have been avoided; others were probably inevitable no matter what they did. The real problem here isn’t politics, however. It is the reigning ideology of museum design — in which the ideal is a museum “experience” akin to the emotive, manipulative, collectively aggrandizing power of a Steven Spielberg film — that propelled this thing into a monster of cultural self-indulgence.

Striving for catharsis and epiphany, they have created an oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism, where visitors are allowed to feel personally touched by the deaths of people they didn’t know; where they can revel for a few hours in righteous grievance; where they repeat the pieties of our unresolved, pop-psych ideas about death and remembrance and rebirth and renewal. And maybe indulge thoughts of vengeance.

Not wrong, yet not quite right

This may explain the deep unease many people feel about the short film that covers the origins of the attacks, the history of al-Qaeda and Islamic radicalism. The film can’t be faulted factually. It clearly distinguishes the murderers of al-Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims who were just as horrified as everyone else that day. But when you begin to think about the confused and overdramatized theology of the 9/11 museum, you realize that no amount of careful explication in one brief film, in one small passageway, can compete with the larger cosmology of American suffering, borrowed Christian symbols and Hollywood tropes of heroism that form the basic eschatology of this motley, raggle-taggle religious pageant. The museum doesn’t get the facts of Islam wrong; it simply leaves no room for anything that can’t be assimilated into an essentially Americanist and Christian world view.

Now it’s time to leave. There has been little discussion of how 9/11 actually changed America, how we are all under surveillance, our phones tapped, our e-mails collected, how security fears mean one can no longer enter the Supreme Court through its front door or step onto the west terrace of the Capitol. You’ve learned nothing about the overwhelming cost of two wars, the loss of civil liberties, the secret renditions, the systematic use of torture and the prison camps just out of reach of the once-vigorous U.S. Constitution. There is, however, a film in an upper level auditorium in which the political leaders of the United States emote about what an awful day it was, with George W. Bush claiming (counter to multiple intelligence warnings) that the events of 9/11 were “unimaginable.”

But nevermind. As you ascend the escalators, from darkness to light, you hear the faint sound of a bagpipe playing from speakers hidden somewhere in the walls or ceiling, and perhaps you feel an involuntary tug of Anglo-Saxon reassurance. And for a moment the whole thing feels silly, pompous and a bit ridiculous, like a Mel Gibson movie. If all of this has left a bad taste in your mouth, the Pavilion Cafe is on the second floor. The gift shop is to your left.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum is in New York City. For more information visit www.911memorial.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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