American exceptionalism and American innocence: The misleading history and messages of the 9/11 Memorial Museum

American exceptionalism and American innocence: The misleading history and messages of the 9/11 Memorial Museum

The 9/11 Memorial gets grief profoundly. But the museum cynically exploits tragedy, confuses history with ideology

After a dozen years of thinking, planning, disputing, designing, building and — we cannot leave this out — patriotic hyperventilating, we have a museum given over to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. We have a museum and a problem, the one no less important to understand than the other.

There is what happened, there are the victims, and there are we, the living. All are part of the presentation at the site of the World Trade Towers in lower Manhattan.

The chronology of the fateful day is recounted in minute-to-minute fashion, each tiny turn in the dawning tragedy described with a kind of enveloping immediacy. There is no escaping the sensation of being pulled back into the sunny Tuesday morning itself and reliving it, each shout and siren, as is the intended effect.

The victims are present in a nearly infinite collection of artifacts, nothing too small or ephemeral, and in heart-splitting loops of last-minute messages left on voice machines in the searing heat of minutes that simply moved too fast. They are there in catalogs of pictures, thumbnail “Portraits in Grief” (originally published by the New York Times), and in the incessant repetition of names. Individuation is an insistent theme.

The living, we, are honored, too. The museum offers us everything from wrecked fire engines — three, I think — to more tiny artifacts and more voices — recordings of survivors, of the spouses of those lost, of high political figures. “It tells the story of how, in the aftermath of the attacks, our city, our nation, and peoples from across the world came together, supporting each other through difficult times and emerging stronger than ever,” Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor, told NPR on May 15, six days before the doors finally opened.