Sturken, marita. the 9 11 memorial museum and the remaking of ground zero

Sturken, marita. the 9 11 memorial museum and the remaking of ground zero

(Parte 1 de 3)

The 9/1 Memorial Museum and the Remaking of Ground

Zero Marita Sturken

American Quarterly, Volume 67, Number 2, June 2015, p. 471-490 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/aq.2015.02

For additional information about this article

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2015 The American Studies Association

The 9/1 Memorial Museum and the Remaking of Ground Zero

Marita Sturken n the vast Foundation Hall of the National September 1 Memorial Museum, which opened in May 2014 at Ground Zero in New York, reside two objects that embody in many ways its complex, contradictory, moving yet problematic project. The first is the very large steel column that stands in the middle of the room, commanding over the space.

Known as the Last Column, this thirty-six-foot-high steel colossus is covered with messages to the dead, photographs, and memorial inscriptions put there by firefighters, police, rescue workers, and other laborers who worked at the recovery mission at Ground Zero for nine months. The Last Column has been much written about and as an object has been the source of a significant amount of emotion and ceremony. When the column was finally removed from the site of Ground Zero on May 30, 2002, it was draped with a flag and awarded an honor guard escort. As the museum itself narrates, “Standing tall once again, the Last Column will encourage reflection on the foundations of resilience, hope, and community with which we might build our collective future.”1

One could say that this steel column became an extraordinary object in the aftermath of September 1, one deeply invested with the grief, anger, and mourning of the site. As a symbol of resilience, because it survived, it is an object of affirmation that mediates the loss and vulnerability experienced in the events of 9/1. It speaks to the deep ethos of the public servants, engineers, and union workers who devoted themselves to the recovery and clearing of the site of Ground Zero (many of whom have suffered in the aftermath). Scrawled with names and messages, plastered with photographs, the column has been transformed into a kind of pastiche of the loss that resides at Ground Zero; on display in the museum it has been set up with a digital database, so that visitors can go to screens and tap into the stories behind the messages. Yet, importantly, the meaning of the Last Column is also about scale. It is huge, towering over the space of the hall, which itself stands seven stories underground. It is a reminder, in its size, of just how tall the twin towers were, as oversized skyscrapers that dominated the New York skyline for decades. It is also

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a reminder of the scale of the event— that huge pieces of steel were twisted, bent, melted, and broken. This steel column in many ways embodies this massive scale and the shocking transformation of materiality that took place on 9/1 even as, at the same time, its inscriptions speak a kind of intimacy, of compassion, of sorrow.

The second object, which is on display not far from the Last Column, is a seemingly ordinary brick in a display case.

This brick was taken from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where

Osama bin Laden was assassinated by US Navy Seals in 2011, and it is now on display with the jacket of one of the Navy Seals (donated by the man who wore it) and a small CIA “challenge coin” apparently awarded in the agency for a mission accomplished and donated by the CIA operative (“Maya”) who led the intelligence mission to find bin Laden. There are many troubling aspects to the inclusion of this brick in the museum, not the least of which is that the historical exhibition of the museum has only the smallest mention of the killing of bin Laden (under the title of “Accountable”). Unlike the Last Column, which is striking in its uniqueness, a steel column that could not be mistaken for another column, the bin Laden brick does not exude its histori-

Figure 1. The Last Column on display in Foundation Hall, with the Slurry Wall behind it. Photograph: Jin Lee, courtesy of the National September 1 Memorial Museum.

cal importance in its objectness. It looks like an ordinary brick, of a particular kind of sandy construction. The brick was donated by

Fox News reporter Dominic Di-Natale, who chiseled several bricks out of the foundation of the compound (before it was torn down) while reporting in Pakistan. According to Fox News, he stated at the time, “America is the greatest country in the world. It’s the least I could do.”2 Tragically, Di-Natale, who was originally British, committed suicide in December 2014, after being diagnosed with brain damage related to injuries he received while covering the war in Iraq.3 The layers of tragedy in this story speak to the bitter emptiness of revenge and the impossibility of closure of the events of 9/1. It is a reminder of another sad consequence of the wars that emanated from 9/1, the thousands of American veterans and journalists who have been disabled, killed, or have committed suicide in the last decade.

In a certain sense, the brick sits in the museum as a form of evidence, with a quasi-legal status, as an indicator that indeed bin Laden’s killing did take place. Its presence in the museum is meant to signal a narrative end to the story of 9/1, if not closure then the restoration of national power. We have

Figure 2. The brick from the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, on display in Foundation Hall. Photograph: Marita Sturken.

| 474American Quarterly no actual material confirmation of bin Laden’s death, since the Pentagon chose to anonymously bury him at sea, so it is only the popular culture imagining of the 2013 film Zero Dark Thirty (through which most museum visitors would likely have learned the story of the woman CIA officer “Maya” who pursued bin Laden over the years). It is the journey of the brick from Pakistan to New York that provides this narrative of closure, creating the sense that the brick’s final destination should be in the museum, on display with the artifacts of 9/1.

The presence of these two objects near each other in the Foundation Hall demonstrates so many of the varied and sometimes contradictory aims of the 9/1 memorial museum. The museum states its mission as “bearing solemn witness” to the terrorist attacks on September 1, 2001. But there are other goals in evidence at the museum: to tell the story of the events of September 1, 2001, and its aftermath; to construct a political narrative of the meanings of 9/1; to commemorate those who died that day, not only in New York but at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and to meaningfully provide access to key aspects of the site of Ground Zero itself.

The existence of a memorial museum at Ground Zero in New York now seems like an inevitable outcome of the events of September 1, 2001. Yet this is a retrospective inevitability, a quality we read into the museum today, since its very presence seems to convey the sense that it is the natural outcome of that day. In other words, many aspects of the museum (its site specificity, its narrative, its material objects) cohere to make it seem as if it were always supposed to be there, at this site, now defined as sacred. Such a sense has been retrospectively constructed, since a memorial museum was not part of the first visions for the site and is the result of many years of debate and controversy; its fate was often precarious and unpredictable. The museum was only initially conceived in 2004, with its current form put into development in 2006, a full five years after September 1 and after many other cultural imaginings for the site, including the International Freedom Center, a museum with a much broader aim, and various cultural centers had been proposed, debated, fought over, and rejected. Many scholars of 9/1 and memory studies, myself included, have watched the 9/1 memorial and the National September 1 Memorial Museum’s long, slow, and tortured development with trepidation—it seemed so doomed from the start, so mired in politics. Surely it would please no one, it has long been said; surely it will fail in this context of overdetermined expectations.

Yet here it is now, a major destination in the city and the nation. The museum reported in September 2014 that it had reached the milestone of one million visitors a mere few months after its opening. It has been the focus of an enormous number of reviews, civic attention, and not a small amount of criticism. The fact that the museum already seems to be fulfilling the role of the most symbolic destination in relation to 9/1 thus rewrites its creation as one of inevitability. Yet, ironically, evidence of the fitful stops and starts of the museum’s conception are writ everywhere in its design, its narrative of the meaning of 9/1, and its exhibitions. Without even knowing the details, it is possible for one to decipher in the mishmash of its exhibition design the fact that it was worked on by an array of exhibition design and architectural teams. (The original exhibition design firm Thinc Design, with Local Projects, did the lead exhibition design; Thinc Design did the introductory exhibits, memorial exhibition, and exhibition level design; Layman Design, which was hired in 2010, did the historical exhibition; the various media designs were by Local Projects; and, as I discuss below, the architects played a role that spilled over into exhibition design.) One can read in the tentativeness of its narrative that it was in its design beholden to a large number of political interests and interest groups, including family members of those who died, public servants, and donors, and that it is the result of design by committee in ways that were inevitable. Most visitors may not draw these conclusions, but the hodgepodge quality of the exhibitions has been noted frequently in assessments of it.

That the museum’s success as a destination is ensured should direct us to consider the consequences of its newly emerged role as the central narrative of 9/1. Like all the post-9/1 responses to that day, it has been a messy and expensive project (with a price tag of $700 million for the memorial and museum combined, an amount inflated by the cost of rebuilding damaged infrastructure at the site)—in this light, one cannot help but compare it with One World Trade Center that stands next to it, which at a $38 billion price tag is the most expensive building ever built. The 9/1 museum matters, and it tells us a lot about how 9/1 has shaped American culture and society in what we can still define as the post-9/1 era in American history, both in what it does well and in what it is unable, for political reasons, to do.

It is with the site itself that the museum first makes an impression on visitors.

As part of its status on the National Register of Historic Places, the museum must provide meaningful access to certain aspects of the site, including the slurry wall that famously held back the Hudson River that day and afterward and the column footprints of the original twin towers. This mandate helped shape the design of the architectural team that had the most impact on the final design, Davis Brody Bond (DBB), which was hired in 2004 to work on design-

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ing a structure at Ground Zero before the museum director and staff were even hired. While Snøhetta, an international design firm based in Norway, designed the museum’s pavilion, which sits on the plaza between the two voids of the 9/1 memorial pools and houses the security-heavy entrance, an auditorium, and a café, its input ended at ground level, and the majority of the architectural design (from the first escalator downward) was done by DBB. (The pavilion was originally supposed to house a restaurant serving gourmet “comfort” food by the well-known restaurateur Danny Meyer, but after criticism this was downscaled to a café with pastries and coffee.)4 Indeed, the Snøhetta pavilion, which looks modern and bright on the plaza, especially when lit up at night, is in character and feel quite different from the rest of the underground museum. (Both firms were working on previous projects at the site when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation changed tack and put them together on the newly conceived museum project. The combination of these two designs was thus based on the fraught management of the project rather than on aesthetic choices.) One could say that these two parts of the museum are not in dialogue with each other, each creating very different aesthetic experiences.

Figure 3. Night view of the north pool of the 9/1 memorial with the Snøhetta museum pavilion behind it. Photograph: Amy Dreher, courtesy of the National September 1 Memorial Museum.

The DBB design of the museum effectively curates the specific aspects of the site as particularly symbolic. Its primary feature is a broad “ribbon” walkway that brings visitors down toward the huge central space, stopping at a kind of vista point that looks into the Foundation Hall with the slurry wall on the left. Thus the architectural design of the museum articulates the site itself as impressive, something to be gazed at—the first time I stood at that vista point, I was reminded of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Farther down, the walkway reaches another vista point, and then brings viewers down to the floor below next to the “Survivors’ Stairs,” part of a preserved staircase that provided a way out to Vesey Street for thousands of survivors.

The architectural design of the space is shaped by the fact that the underground museum incorporates the two enormous square structures that contain the “voids” of the original twin towers that now constitute the main feature of the 9/1 memorial at ground level. This means that within the museum’s vast expansive space, which reaches seven stories down to the bedrock and constitutes 110,0 square feet underground, there are two large enclosed chambers—these hold the pools at the upper levels, with two key galleries (the memorial gallery and the historical exhibition) housed below them. The architects clad these chambers in a kind of aluminum mesh that provides an intriguing textured surface in the larger spaces. At the far end of each edge of the site, the architects made the decision to excavate the bases of the columns of the original towers, so that one sees not only the footprints of the original columns but the metal bases, worn concrete, and even the original wooden frames from when those columns were first erected in the late 1960s. These features of the museum design are surprisingly effective—while one might want to question how the footprints of the original towers have taken on such symbolic power, the site’s materiality carries a particular kind of evocative power.5 Standing in the Foundation Hall, with the slurry wall and the very tall Last Column, one feels a kind of vulnerability and even awe at how deep and vast the space is.

(Parte 1 de 3)