9/11 Memorial Museum Topic of Talk

April 25, 2007 -- More than five years have passed since the tragic attacks of September 11. On April 19, Alice Greenwald visited the University to discuss plans for a memorial museum at Ground Zero, the New York City site where the Twin Towers once stood.

The museum will acknowledge the lives lost and consequences of that day, said Greenwald, director of the memorial museum, World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, whose talk was sponsored by the departments of Jewish studies, history and religious studies and the School of Architecture.

A sensitive balance must be reached with the construction of this museum, which must properly respect and mourn the loss of life while simultaneously relaying the historical events of the day and the consequences of a post-9/11 world, Greenwald told the audience gathered in Campbell Hall.

Greenwald’s 19 years spent facilitating the planning of Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum gives her strong insight into how to handle the sensitive issues associated with such delicate projects, where respecting the families, friends and survivors is of the utmost importance. In constructing the Holocaust Museum, there was great controversy over whether or not to display hair, taken from Jews at Auschwitz to be sold. While some felt that including the hair was necessary to relay the whole story, Greenwald said, “in the end it was about not violating the trust of the survivors.” The hair was not included.

One of the most significant debates in the planning of the World Trade Center’s Memorial Museum encompasses the manner in which the names of the victims are displayed. Questions arose over whether to list the names by affiliation, employer or randomly, suggesting that “we are all simply human beings in that moment of tragic loss,” Greenwald said. Another highly sensitive issue is how to handle the approximately 14,000 unidentified remains in the custody of the city of New York.

The debate continues whether they belong to the site as the only burial ground for the 40 percent of families whose loved ones were never found. “This memorial represents the only monument to their loss,” Greenwald said. Not only is this balance between the site as both a respectful memorial and educational history difficult to reach, but the sheer size of the land is quite an undertaking. The entire World Trade Center site in the heart of Manhattan’s bustling financial district is 16 acres, approximately the same size of downtown Atlanta.

Developing a sensitive yet educational Memorial Museum requires a cautious approach to emotionally heightened issues, especially since this museum will be located on the precise grounds where the tragedy occurred. This project “will focus on the real impact of terrorism on the lives of real people,” Greenwald said.

Some highlights of the current plan include two acre-sized pools of water, representing the general footprints of the towers, which will be surrounded by a treed plaza. The names of the victims will appear along the periphery of the pools, probably flush with the sides, Greenwald said. The museum will be primarily below-ground, including two overlook points where the outside light and pools can be seen, a private repository for unidentified remains, an alcove restricted to the victims’ families and various other exhibits throughout with a primary exhibition room. For families with children, there is also to be a family exhibition, providing “a learning experience that is not a violation of younger sensibilities,” Greenwald said.

One of her hopes for the final project is interviews that will be digitally presented.

The development of the narrative has just begun for this museum, which will be roughly dividedinto three components, Greenwald said. The first part will deal with the events of the day with oral testimony, pictures and documentaries. The second component will focus on the context and background of the terrorists, and the towers as a symbolic target after the bombing there on Feb. 26, 1993. The final component will be the aftermath and recovery, addressing the continuing heath issues, the 9/11 Commission’s findings and content dealing with the invasion of Afghanistan. Though there will be content throughout, Greenwald stressed that caution will be taken in the presentation since it is still a memorial space.

The process of planning and constructing this museum is all a part of the memorializing of the tragic events and great loss the nation experienced in 2001. While due to the location of this Memorial Museum, the focus will be primarily on the loss in New York and the Twin Towers themselves, the attacks at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Penn. will also be acknowledged.

For the most part, many of those visiting this museum will come with “a memory of that event in their head,” Greenwald said, acknowledging that “everyone has a 9/11 story.”

The Memorial Museum itself is to provide a “sense of power of sound to block out the rest of the sounds of urban life,” Greenwald said. “The journey will be affected and emotional.” As a result, there will be many opportunities for people to collect themselves and reflect on the enormous severity of the events being presented and remembered. Greenwald stressed that “the 9/11 story is actually a story of immense hope,” reflected by the remarkable response of emergency units and regular civilians across the nation and world.

Another important issue for Greenwald and the Memorial Museum Foundation to consider in the planning of this project is that there are children today who, born after 2001, will not carry personal memories of the tragedy. “We owe this generation the imperative of remembrance,” Greenwald said, Quoting Holocaust survivor and American-Jewish novelist Elie Wiesel, Greenwald poignantly said, “If we stop remembering, we stop being.”