This month the United States, as well as many countries the world over, has commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11. There have been museum-sponsored events and exhibitions such as the inauguration of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the World Trade Center in New York, and a display of 9/11 artifacts collected by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; and street displays like the models of the Twin Towers, covered with messages from the French people, erected on the Place du Trocadero in Paris.
Where Is the Analysis?
None of these commemorations, if the coverage is accurate, contain much if any interpretation of the event. In his International Herald Tribune critique (Sept. 9, 2011) of two photography exhibitions mounted by the New York Historical Society, Edward Rothstein acknowledges the continuing power of the images taken by thousands just after the event and collected by the Museum. But, he asks, why are they displayed, 10 years later, almost as if they were photographs of a natural disaster, an act of God? In the immediate aftermath it is understandable that the images could stand alone. Yet today, in these exhibitions and in other events around the city, he writes, “the private details of grief still overwhelm any sense of public meaning, which is peculiar given the scale of the event and its consequences.” What is preventing us from “daring to commemorate and comprehend rather than simply remember?”
It’s said that Chinese leader Chou en Lai, when asked in 1972 what he thought about the historical impact of the French Revolution, responded, “It’s too soon to tell.” It is certainly true that historians, especially museum historians, prefer the long view, and feel a professional sense of responsibility to avoid premature assessments even of world-shaking events. At meetings at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the days after 9/11, I remember heated discussions between curators who proposed that the Museum create some kind of immediate display that would speak to the attacks, and those who thought this was completely inappropriate for a museum of history. In fact, soon after, the Museum did put on view in its large Flag Hall some original posters of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as well as the immense fire-stained flag flown by firefighters on the façade of the Pentagon in the immediate aftermath. In an attempt to address the shifting social and cultural landscape at the time, the Museum developed a series of public forums entitled Crossroads, running monthly from November into the following spring.
When the Museum developed September 11: Bearing Witness to History in 2002, it decided, after visitor surveys, to mount an exhibition that encouraged remembrance and reflection, with little or no curatorial comment or interpretation. The program organized by the Museum for the 10th anniversary was in fact entitled September 11: Remembrance and Reflection, and featured more than 50 objects from the three sites – New York, Shanksville, PA, and the Pentagon- displayed on tables rather than under glass. Visitors filed respectfully and quietly past the tables, and many left comments that will be retained for future research. At the Pentagon there is a memorial park, and we will have to wait until next year to see how the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York handles the interpretive contextual aspects of an event that is still so emotionally raw in that city above all.
When Is It No Longer “Too Soon”?
When is it no longer “too soon” to discuss the historical and social causes and effects of an event? As we enter the second decade of the 21st century historians and other academics still argue about the major wars of the 20th. Journals and history listservs buzzed with controversies still alive during last year’s 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Is analysis within the decade of an event by its very nature a-historical? For analysis and a search for a fuller understanding of the events of 9/11 necessitate an examination of the role of the US in the larger global community; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the prisons of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; the impact on citizens’ privacy and human rights; the changing power of the executive branch; anti-Muslim prejudice, and many other difficult topics. Certainly a number of well researched and thoughtful books have been published by journalists such as Lawrence Wright and Robin Wright on many of these questions. Other segments of the cultural community – dramatists and filmmakers for example – have also created material that starts with 9/11 but goes on to link it with larger historical issues.
Is the American public not ready for a complex examination in a museum setting of both 9/11 and its continuing impact? Or are museums not ready? Or is it a bit of both? It’s not too soon to begin discussing this more openly.