Memory and History at Ground Zero

There is a wonderful article in yesterday’s New York Times on the challenges of commemorating and interpreting the tragedy of 9-11 at “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  Back in January I wrote on some of the parallels between 9-11 and Civil War memory at the Atlantic.  As someone interested in public history and interpretation and as a family member of a 9-11 victim I certainly appreciate the competing interests and emotional investment that animate many in this debate.

  • How should the terrorists be interpreted in the museum?
  • What should be done with the remains of 9-11 victims and how should they be memorialized?
  • How much influence should 9-11 families have on interpretation?
  • What artifacts should be included in the museum?
  • How should the politics of 9-11 be handled, including subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

There are no easy answers nor should there be at this stage.  I was struck by the issue of how to handle the most emotionally sensitive materials such as voice recordings and images.  The designers of the museum have sectioned off certain exhibits and made it possible for visitors to exit at certain points if the experience becomes too much.  As someone who is personally invested in this story I can appreciate the steps taken here, but the historian in me is concerned.

If we are going this far to protect visitors from certain sights and sounds than perhaps it is too soon to even consider a museum.  Perhaps the site should remain a memorial for the near future and perhaps the museum would have been better placed in NYC, but away from Ground Zero.  The people in charge of interpreting the site may have achieved a certain level of detachment, but the general public may still be far behind.

Just a few thoughts.

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9 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Jun 4, 2012 @ 12:50

    David Blight quoted 3 places in article..

    I think he is attempting to help with the memorial process..

    A conversation on you tube with 911 person…. Discussing 911 civil war history memory etc..

    Check out this video on YouTube:

    David Blight discusses 9/11part 1

    January 8 2010

    Blight discusses memorialization in American culture as an old impulse with a new urgency.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2012 @ 13:48

      Great stuff. Thanks for the link, Doug.

  • Brad Jun 4, 2012 @ 11:50


    I just saw your tribute to your cousin and all I can say it’s a beautiful well written moving tribute.



    • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2012 @ 11:54

      Thank you, Brad.

  • Keith Muchowski Jun 3, 2012 @ 17:29

    Kevin, I was down at Ground Zero yesterday doing some things and the area was insanely crowded with tourists there to see the site, as there always is. I’ve commented before about the souvenir hawkers selling ghastly 9/11 tschhokes. I literally had to walk in the street because the crowds were so heavy.

    I never understood the rush to build the 9/11 museum. My guess is that it happened because there were two powerful constituencies (the Wall Street/real estate people and firemen/municipal authorities) who wanted it to happen. I have lived here in NYC for fifteen years and can tell you that the museum talk began immediately after the attacks. I mean within days.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2012 @ 3:09

      I guess all of the challenges referenced in the article are compounded by the fact that NYC is culturally future oriented. I suspect that some of these issues will be much more easily dealt with in the not too distant future.

      • Keith Muchowski Jun 4, 2012 @ 5:11

        Yes, to rebuild is part of the ethos of New York City, and has been for centuries. For whatever my opinion is worth, I was against the building of a museum and any longterm memorials so quickly. When I realized it was going to happen, I hoped they would put the Museum of the City of New York there. There was much talk in the late 1990s and early 2000s of relocating the MCNY to downtown, but it never happened. I felt that museum could have incorporated elements of the 9/11 story into the context of the city’s history.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2012 @ 6:45

          That seems like an interesting option, though I wonder if the rest of the history of the city would be overshadowed by the events at Ground Zero. At the same time perhaps it would help to cushion the impact of the history of 9-11. Like I said, there are no clear answers here, but many competing interests. Regardless of what the museum looks like today it is inevitable that certain changes will be made in time.

  • Brendan Bossard Jun 3, 2012 @ 16:56

    The memory of 9/11 is very painful for me, even though I know of no close friends or relatives who died in that attack. But I am going to be having a son soon. I don’t know when “old enough” will be, but when he gets there, I will tell him what happened and watch the video recordings of the planes hitting the buildings and tell him where I was and what I was doing when it happened. It is important for us to remember everything that happened not only on that day, but in the years since.

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