The september 11 memorial museums moral responsibility

After the first plane hit, the Wall Street Journal offices on Liberty Street were evacuated, but no one knew at the time that a plane had hit. We joined a small group of people on the sidewalk and looked up at the building that was on fire. I think that the second plane flew right over our heads, but I could be wrong. But I know for sure about the impact, the broken glass, and a stranger covering my body with his. People jumped with a lot of grace, but we didn’t stay to watch. You were lucky not to get caught or lose someone.

All of this is why I don’t want to remember September 11—and why I don’t want to remember any tragedy, much less one whose effects have been so destructive and divisive. Last month, a cousin who was in town asked me to go to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum with him. I said no.

The woman in charge of running the museum is calm.

“It’s a common reaction, especially among New Yorkers, because 9/11 was a personal event for them,” says Alice Greenwald, the director of the memorial museum. For the past eight years, her job has been to collect and remember horrible things on behalf of other people. “This is very raw for people who live in the New York area, and I can see why it might be scary to think about going back to that terrible, terrible morning.”

Greenwald is gentle. That day, she was not in New York.

Today is the first September 11 since the museum opened in the spring. In some ways, it’s the real endpoint of Greenwald’s work. Its gallery is a subterranean hall that is 110,000 square feet and is meant to look like a grave. There are the remains of thousands of people who have never been found. Only the families of those who died on September 11 will be there today.

Greenwald was an assistant director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., before planning started in 2006. She knew the 9/11 Memorial Museum would be hard and controversial. “That’s how this kind of project works,” she says.

Memorials all over the world have caused trouble. Also in Washington, D.C., the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was once called a “black gash of shame and sorrow.” People have said that Rwanda’s main genocide memorial is wrong because it doesn’t remember Hutu victims and because it shows human remains. And every public memorial needs to answer the question, “Why are they there?”

Greenwald says, referring to a book about the Vietnam Memorial, that memorials are how people make promises to the future about the past. They are “places of encounter” where we can pay our respects to people whose lives were taken unfairly. She says that in them we can see “the worst of our human nature, but also, inevitably, the best.”

At the 9/11 museum, the encounter with mass death, our best and worst selves, our past, and our hopes for the future is done through narration. Even though the name “9/11 Memorial Museum” isn’t the most elegant, it is still a museum.

“Right now, our most important job is to tell the story. Not so much to figure out what it means — that’s for our visitors, “Greenwald says.

The largest exhibition space uses video, photos, and objects to show every minute from when the first plane hit the north tower until the tower fell down and beyond.

Greenwald says, “It was the most digitally recorded event in the history of the world.”

Audio, too. Cockpit recordings, last voice messages, first responders on the radio, some of them running to their deaths. People who know the end is coming talk about terrible pain, fear, and maybe even love and faith.

I want to know how hard her work is on her.

“It has been really hard,” she says. “I’m sure there has been some kind of emotional cost. But part of what makes a job like this interesting is that there is a goal. There is an end goal. So you’re not wallowing in bad stuff or going through it for no reason.”

She says that one of Greenwald’s goals has been to make history clear. Five years after the attack, planning started, but there was no single authoritative source.

Greenwald says, “It wasn’t like a Renaissance art museum where we could have a whole library.” “The decisions we were making were making a big deal out of a historical event.”

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