The Woman Writing the History of 9/11
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Why revisit an awful day? The director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum says it’s a place to remember and pay respects, but also to exhale.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
This OZY encore was originally published on the opening of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in 2014. Since its opening last year, the museum has seen some 2.7 million visitors.
The Wall Street Journal offices on Liberty Street were evacuated after the first plane hit, though none of us knew then that a plane had hit. We joined a small crowd on the sidewalk and squinted up at the smoking building. I remember the second plane flying right over our heads, though this may be inaccurate. But the impact I’m sure of, and the debris, and a stranger shielding my body with his. We saw people jump with an awful grace and did not linger. Lucky not to get caught, lucky not to lose someone.
All this I proffer as explanation for why I don’t want to commemorate September 11 — why I avoid commemorations of any tragedy, let alone one whose consequences have been so destructive and divisive. When a visiting cousin asked me to join him at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum last month, I refused.
The woman who directs the museum is unruffled. “It’s not an uncommon response, particularly among New Yorkers — for them, 9/11 was a personal experience,” says the memorial museum’s director, Alice Greenwald, whose job for eight years has been to collect and remember horrible things on behalf of others. “This is very raw for people living in the New York metropolitan area, and I can understand the somewhat intimidating prospect of reliving that terrible, terrible morning.” Greenwald is gentle. She was not in New York that day.
Today is the first September 11 since the museum opened this past spring, and in some ways the real culmination of Greenwald’s endeavor. Its gallery is an 110,000-square-foot subterranean hall that intentionally evokes the grave. Thousands of unidentified human remains are entombed there. Today, only families of those who died on 9/11 will visit.
Memorials are the way people make promises to the future about the past.
Before planning began in 2006, Greenwald was an associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. She knew the 9/11 Memorial Museum would be difficult, contentious: “It’s the nature of this kind of project,” she says.
Memorials the world over have stirred controversy. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also in Washington, D.C., was once lambasted as a “black gash of shame and sorrow.” Rwanda’s main genocide memorial has been criticized for not recognizing Hutu victims and for displaying human remains. And every public memorial must answer a question: To what end do they exist?
“Memorials are the way people make promises to the future about the past,” Greenwald says, citing a book about the Vietnam Memorial. They are “places of encounter” where we can pay respects to people whose lives were taken unjustly. In them, we can find “the worst of our human nature, but also, inevitably, the best,” she says.
At the 9/11 museum, the encounter — with mass death, with our best and worst selves, with our past and our hopes for the future — is achieved through narration. The name “9/11 Memorial Museum” is perhaps inelegant, but at its heart, it is a museum to that day. “Our primary responsibility right now is to tell the story. Not necessarily to make meaning of it — that’s for our visitors,” Greenwald says.
You’re not wallowing in terrible material or experiencing it without a purpose.
The largest exhibition space uses video, photographs and objects to document every minute from the first plane hitting the north tower to its collapse, and beyond. “It was the most digitally documented event in world history,” says Greenwald. Audio too. Cockpit recordings, last voice messages, first responders on the radio, some of them running to death. You hear people who know the end is coming, moments of awful distress and fear and maybe love and faith too.
I ask about the emotional toll of her work. “It certainly has been intense,” she says. “I am sure there has been an emotional toll at some level. But part of the experience of a job like this is that there is a mission. There is an objective. So you’re not wallowing in terrible material or experiencing it without a purpose.”
Part of her purpose has been to crystallize history, she says. Planning began just five years after the attack, with no single authoritative reference. “It wasn’t like a museum to Renaissance art where we could have a whole library,” says Greenwald. “The choices we were making were codifying a historical event, in way that could be overwhelming.”
Part of the museum’s purpose, too, is to give history a chance to evolve. She says she is mindful that the significance of 9/11 is still being debated, and fought and killed over. The museum, she says, intentionally opens itself to others’ interpretations.
Toward the end of the interview, I tell Greenwald my reluctance to visit the museum might make me the wrong person to interview her, or maybe the right one. She laughs but says, “The museum isn’t just about 9/11. It’s a place to come to heal, individually and communally. It’s a place to exhale after holding our breath since 9/11. The history is contained there, so it doesn’t have to be a burden to us,” she says.
So, yes, the memorial museum testifies to mass death. But it also attests to resilience, Greenwald says. An installation called “Rebirth at Ground Zero” is a 10-minute, panoramic time-lapse film that begins in the last days of the recovery and ends with the completion of the new tower. “There are people whose voices you hear who were intimately affected, and they are speaking to how, with the passage of time, it is possible to reconstruct your life. Just as we have reconstructed at ground zero,” Greenwald says. She adds that the queue for the installation is long.
“The museum is a surprise to a lot of people. They think it will be descending into Dante’s Inferno, but it takes you out of yourself, out of the everyday for a few hours, and immerses you in something quite profound. I think people feel somewhat changed, in a positive way.”
There’s an exposed section of the slurry wall that was the World Trade Center’s foundation, still standing, still keeping the Hudson River out of Lower Manhattan. That, Greenwald says, speaks to resilience too. She encourages me to come see it.