visiting the very recent past: the 9/11 memorial and museum

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Virgil, Aeneid IX, 447

When the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened, the fact that it has this quote from the Aeneid on its wall as an epitaph created a kerfuffle because of the original context of the the line, immortalising young men who entered an enemy territory ambushed and slaughtered a group of people in their homeland – and were then brutally executed for it. Helen Morales wasn’t wrong to say that:

“If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial.”

In response, the museum’s director was quoted as saying:

“The quote speaks to the indelibility of our memories,” she said. “In selecting this quote, our focus was not on the specific narrative of the classic story nor its characters. What resonated with us, and with everyone who reviewed its use in the context of the museum, was the reference to a single day not being able to erase the memory of those we love.”

She’s not wrong either. That’s how reading poetry, reception and appropriation works: different people take the same phrases, images, or memories, and own them in different ways. But if you’re going to do that, you have to acknowledge that there are people mourning and remembering the attackers in the same way as the victims – thinking that their actions were as legitimate, praiseworthy, and worthy of commemorating as Virgil suggests was the case for those of Nisus and Euryalus.

That’s an interesting question for this kind of museum: how much of the surrounding geopolitics is going to feature in explaining the event and its aftermath? Several years ago now, I went to the Hiroshima Atom Bomb museum. It did engage with some of the allied debates and decisions that led up to the dropping of the bomb – but in a weird Japan-doesn’t-really-like-thinking-about-its-less-honourable-history kind of way. What was New York going to do?

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Anyway, this discussion about the quotation, combined with the place of 9/11 in America’s psyche and every day policies and behaviours (which are generally considered with compassion-but-perturbation where I come from) was enough to give me if not quite the howling fantods at least some nauesating collywobbles about what the museum might contain and – more importantly – what it might enshrine and do further.

But, equally, I was intrigued to see what the museum would be like, and so I took myself off there at the beginning of my time in New York – with mixed to positive results.

As a museum of the memorial (which is above ground in the park) I think the museum works well. It focused as much on the World Trade Centre as a building, what it was to New York and America along with being the space you’re standing in, as well as on the people who died in the event. It was quiet, spacious, and calm, and didn’t particularly try to evoke unnecessarily sentiment. It made a point of presenting victim of the attacks as an individual, including material about them each: indeed, I’d recommend picking an individual to track at the various points, otherwise it’s easy to get so overwhelmed that you might stop distinguishing.

At the same time, this all stands alone, in isolation from the state of the world before and after the attacks. Probably recognising – but not acknowledging – that any attempt to explain cause and effect can never be anything but controversial, the museum shies away from any attempt to seriously reflect on why this came about and what it has meant for America and for the wider world. It remembers, but it doesn’t have a bigger place to put these memories, and so you just circle through the event, again and again. It’s oddly symbolic that you go out of the museum in the same way you came in.

That’s not unexpected, and honestly, not that disappointing – perhaps in the slight relief that the museum wasn’t as polemic as it might have been disappointment seems like an unfair response – but I think it will make for a less effective museum. At least – for those of us who like our memorials to have the power to enoucrage people to respond in a way that might be positive for the future. Done well, a museum reflecting on 9/11 might encourage people to join the dots of the world between its heirs in a way that doesn’t lead to war, vengeance, torture, suicide bombs, or crushing levels of state-policing. As it is, it doesn’t really try, making the people who visit strangely disengaged from everything but the actual event itself.

The museum itself is built in a void. It didn’t have to stay in it.

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