Today I think about memory.
I remember it being the second day of my sophomore year. I remember waking up far too early to go to a physics lab.
I remember the radio in the lab being on, with the beginnings of a story none of us fully understood.
I remember when we finally understood.
I remember realizing I didn’t know where my father was, a MSgt in the Air Force who traveled along the East Coast. New York? Possible. Washington? Also possible. I remember the phones to our base being blocked so I couldn’t reach my parents for hours.
I remember walking to Invertebrate Zoology class, not knowing what else to do, and meeting a girl who held my hand and became my friend.
I remember being scared of what this all would mean – what we and other countries would decide to do in response – and thinking about my former classmates in military academies and newly enlisted.
And I remember wondering where the story would lead and how we would tell it. Suddenly history was present and tangible – visceral – for my generation in a way it hadn’t been before. History had happened to us. How would we remember that and who would be our memory keepers?
I’ve watched the narratives about September 11th that have sprung forth from that day: grief, conspiracy, love, anger, resilience, retribution. From the beginning, the narration was fragmented and full of half-knowns to be (mis)interpreted. How could it be otherwise? You piece together what you can, and the story keeps growing.
In the museum world, there’s been heated debate for years now about the role that the WTC Memorial Museum, and museums in general, need to play in telling the stories of that day and world created after. Who decides content? Whose stories do we tell? Do we attempt to explain? Justify? Do we simply recount, or do we advocate? If so, for what? How do you tell this story?
One of my professional touchstones is a quote by museologist Elaine Heumann Gurrian:
Museums should be safe spaces for unsafe ideas.
Museums are where you should be able to embrace that which enlightens you, confront that which scares you, and oppose that which threatens you. Will the experience change you? Perhaps. But no matter the outcome, you should be safe. The stories that spiderweb out from September 11th need safe spaces because objectivity doesn’t exist within them. The sharpest emotions are embedded in the “truth,” and they will never fully be removed. That is why museums are necessary: they bear witness and strive to do what is so hard for us: find balance. And I hope we can.
As the National September 11 Memorial and Museum opens today, I think about the 1994 Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian. In an attempt to try and tell a whole-picture account of the bombing of Hiroshima and the end of World War II, the museum expanded their story. Instead of the talking points of nationalistic history, the Smithsonian told a story of scared soldiers on all sides, of desperation to end a war, of innocent civilians, and of the far-reaching ripples of consequence our choices create. The Smithsonian did what a museum should do: attempt to tell a balanced story.
The Air Force Association, veterans groups and even Congress disagreed. The organizations accused the Smithsonian of “revisionist history,” with the later threatening to close the exhibit and remove federal funding. Making choices such as asking “why was the bomb dropped?” and connecting that moment of warfare to the postwar legacy of the nuclear arms race that followed was seen as inappropriate, ungrateful and un-American. The exhibit was forcibly altered because even after fifty years, that story was still too recent for a change in history.
On days like today, I think about our resistance to letting stories change. I think of the classmate who still believes the planes and falling towers were a government conspiracy. Or the neighbor who is convinced that every Muslim is a terrorist. Or all the people who embraced the mantra that “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” and now see the world through divisionist glasses. Our own history shows that ten years is nothing in terms of memory, and it will take generations for the stories that began ten years ago to settle into something akin to balance. What we remember today is still raw, even a decade later. I hope museums will always be challenging and encouraging their communities to explore those evolutions of balance. I also hope we can do that ourselves.
Go here to visit the website of the Nation September 11 Memorial and Museum, whose mission is:
…to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.