America Is Doomed

The Closest Some of Us Will Ever Get to Heaven: The 9/11 Museum is the Greatest American Museum

Damaged “That’s all Folks!” sign (photo taken covertly by author)

That’s all folks!

This is what a disarmingly cheery sign, battered and mangled and a little bit dusty, reads—or approximately reads as it is missing a few pieces that were presumably blasted off—in the exhibition galleries depicting the aftermath of September 11th in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Placed above a singed file cabinet, melted into a strange, almost unidentifiable amalgamation of paper and metal, beside a shattered stoplight, and under a vast collection of warped metal, this cartoonish sign came from the indoor mall that was located in a concourse below the World Trade Center, which included, clearly, a Warner Bros. Studio Store. As rescue workers searched the concourse in the days and weeks after 9/11, they found this prescient sign, scattered among the other remnants of American consumerism.

Set within the unbelievably and nearly indescribably unsettling September 11th exhibition, conceived by Thinc Design in collaboration with Local Projects, Warner Bros’ trademark phrase, typically appearing with its loopy text at the end of a Looney Tunes episode set to its iconic zany score, becomes morbidly humorous. After winding through cramped galleries filled to the brim with crushed and contorted emergency vehicles, last-ditch efforts to beg for help written frantically on pieces of paper by people trapped on the 84th floor of the North Tower (along with a bloody fingerprint), plane parts, including detached seatbelts and a charred page from Hemispheres, a crappy in-flight magazine, children’s clothes from suitcases on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, and last known photographs of firefighters and workers in the World Trade Center before they’d become some of the nearly 3,000 people who died during the attacks, all set to a haunting cacophony of sirens, screams, beeping from PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices on rescue workers, indicating man down, and last calls and voicemails from people to their loved ones from the Twin Towers and the four hijacked planes, it’s hard not to finally give in to a little gallows humor.

Lesser curators may have thought…maybe not. But not my heroes at the 9/11 Memorial Museum! And thank god. What could be more appropriate as a symbol, given a highly macabre one, of both 9/11 and the twenty years that have now passed? Beyond the almost incomprehensible loss of lives in unthinkable destruction, 9/11 was certainly an end—to America’s presumed safety, to the relative calm of quaint Y2K paranoia, to the American guarantee of comfortable and secure shopping sprees with Tasmanian Devil T-shirts and Bugs Bunny figurines. One can easily trace a line from the ideal shattering of September 11th and the nation’s trauma response to the persistent viral (in more ways than one) melodrama in which we find ourselves today. And no, I’m not just talking about the people hanging off the wings of airplanes trying to leave the Kabul airport fleeing the Taliban reboot as the U.S. finally pulls out of Afghanistan after twenty years of war. The attacks, in retrospect, fully closed the chapter on the American promise and exceptionalism of the 20th century and ushered in the chaos of the 21st Century and America’s almost unceasingly batshit reactions with a bang, bringing endless wars, torture, drone strikes, terrorist boogieman scare tactics, wild-eyed, flag-waving, yellow ribbon-plastered patriotism, America First isolationism, and nationalistic psychotic breaks.

World Trade Center Observation Deck brochure (Photo by Alexandria Deters)

This wasn’t the only moment in the 9/11 Memorial Museum that inspired me to stare agog and agape at an inclusion that, sure, might have been in poor taste, but provided some welcome, albeit ghoulish, levity. After the moment-by-moment shock value of the September 11th galleries and before the elegiac space depicting the days and weeks sifting through the ash-covered remnants of Ground Zero, the museum offers visitors a bit of a reprieve from the existential fright with a room painted in a buttery yellow. Here, beyond a central model of the World Trade Center, this room boasts a collection of WTC tourist trap tchotchkes and advertisements, grinning photographs taken from Windows on the World and the Observation Deck (some just days before September 11th), and movie posters featuring the Twin Towers. In vitrines that contain tacky items such as statuettes of the Twin Towers as cows (I don’t know) and a classy tie emblazoned with the World Trade Center in gold, there sits a brochure for the Observation Deck. Above a photograph of the buildings, it reads: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.” Jesus. And this isn’t the only one. On the wall overhead, another advertisement boasts: “Seven out of ten tenants have proved that moving to the World Trade Center takes their business in just one direction: UP!”

Welp. Tasteless? Maybe! So affecting that it’s become burned into my subconscious and I find myself thinking about it several times a day? Yes.

However, of all these inclusions, it was the “That’s all Folks!” sign, which I dream of stealing though I’d never get a bag big enough through the TSA-like security at the museum, that settled it for me: the 9/11 Memorial Museum is the best museum not only in New York but the United States. Why? Because as the greatest American museum, it is reflective of who we are as a country. Right from its opening exhibition that features an eerily ominous photograph of the clear blue skies above the Manhattan skyline that morning, leading into a smattering of breathless voices and a slideshow of people photographed staring up at the sky aghast like a Godzilla film, the museum’s organization mirrors America’s overblown response to trauma veiled in remembrance and our media-saturated, image-soaked obsession with violent tragedy and our own history like a country full of rubberneckers at a car crash. Though this sounds like a criticism, it’s not. As John Waters says and I always repeat, “I love everything that’s bad with America!”

The September 11th exhibition (Photo by Jin S. Lee)

I won’t pretend, like many other critics, that I’m separate from this thoroughly American fixation. There’s a reason I went twice this summer and spent four hours there the last time (and have the nagging desire to go again–anyone want to come?). See, I am as twisted as the rest and find some sick fascination with lugubriously contemplating the twisted window of United Airlines Flight 175 and imagining what that window sitter must have thought as they looked out before smashing into the South Tower. Oh fuck.

Admittedly, not everyone appreciates the 9/11 Memorial Museum as much as I do. It has been subject to a flurry of criticism since its opening in 2014 when family members were dismayed to find that the museum concludes, as everything does in America with a gift shop! It wasn’t just the gift shop, though, that raised ire. It was also what they were selling: a now discontinued cheese plate in the shape of the contiguous United States with three small heart-shaped holes punched out indicating New York City, Washington D.C., and Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Imagine introducing your dinner party to your expertly chosen spread of charcuterie on that. Who needs ice breaker games?! This is a quick way to find out if one of your guests is a truther! Plus, I bet you won’t have to worry about party guests outstaying their welcome. I mean, what’s the problem?

The slideshow of shock (Photo: Alexandria Deters)

More recently, though, the focus of criticism has shifted from wanting to pull items off the shelves like they belonged on the much-anticipated year-end Worst Toy lists to questioning if the museum is fulfilling its mission to “exploring 9/11, documenting its impact, and examining its continuing significance.” In particular, museum detractors are skeptical about the lack of engagement with America’s kneejerk response to 9/11, which resulted in moronic blanket Islamophobia, surveillance state overreach, and greenlighting any number of human rights violations. Some of this is explored in a new documentary, The Outsider, which follows the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s first Creative Director Michael Shulan, who became the de facto expert in 9/11 photography by turning a Soho storefront into a photo exhibition Here Is New York after the attacks. The documentary captures Shulan’s frustration as he’s thrown through the wringer of the institutional machine, represented by the Museum’s chief executive and President Alice Greenwald, who previously worked with the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Welcome to working with institutions!

In particular, Shulan wanted the museum to address how the collective fury post-9/11 was harnessed to drive America into the bungled Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Shulan isn’t the only one involved with the museum that wanted to complicate September 11th’s legacy. The New York Times recently spoke with Elizabeth Miller, “the daughter of a fireman who died on 9/11” and an exhibitions research coordinator, who explains “executives often rejected attempts on the part of staff to introduce new programming that might invite difficult conversations about the relationship between the rise of American nationalism after Sept. 11 and a spike in Islamophobia.”

Missing posters (photo by Alexandria Deters)

Since the museum recently had to cut its special exhibitions and programming related to the attacks’ 20th anniversary in response to an $18 million deficit in 2020 and copious furloughs and layoffs due to lower attendance during the pandemic, it’s hard to say whether the museum will eventually evolve to reflect more on how 9/11 paranoia shaped American culture in the 21st century. I kind of doubt it, agreeing with The Daily Beast’s Nick Shager, who writes in response to calls to make the museum more critical of the United States: “Moreover, such insinuations avoid transparent realities, such as the fact that interjecting censure of America into the Memorial & Museum would have provoked even more outrage than was incited by the project’s crass gift-shop items.” Let’s be honest, the museum knows where its bread is buttered. I don’t think the woman I spotted wearing a flame-emblazoned Jack Daniels shirt wants a lecture on the dangers of American nationalism. And frankly, neither do I–mostly because a warning about post-9/11 xenophobic frenzies would be completely glossed over by viewers who are blindly, emotionally wrung-out by the time they get to the impact of 9/11 exhibition galleries. I can’t even remember that section save for the 9/11 Commission and a couple of inhalers.

However, that hasn’t stopped the discussions of the museum’s “failures” or calls to reform the museum, which have become stronger or at least gained new momentum during the approach to the 20th anniversary. But, many of them rely on a fundamental and presumptively snobby distrust in the intelligence and emotional maturity of the museum attendees, assuming that visitors will see the utter terror of the 9/11 attacks and immediately want to invade a Middle Eastern country that afternoon or at the very least punch a Brown person on the train. For instance, Todd Fine and Asad Dandia write in Hyperallergic: “Hence the cultivated feelings of victimization and humiliation may have nowhere to go except desire for vengeance against those ‘responsible,’ a perfect brew for ‘never forget’ nationalism.”

First off, humiliation? About what?! A mauled fire truck from FDNY Ladder Company 3 in East Village that is crunched like a toy onto which a child took out their anger issues made me feel many things, particularly after learning everyone who was in that truck that day died, but humiliation isn’t one of them. Nor is victimization, for that matter, a confusing and overreaching critical assertion that seems at best a desperate attempt to confirm a previously held view or at worse, downright arrogant and insulting to the viewers.

The truck of FDNY’s Ladder Company 3 (PHOTO: Amy Dreher)

Secondly, a desire for vengeance is certainly not the effect the 9/11 Memorial Museum had, at least on me. Unlike other critics, I’m not going to presume to speak for everyone; maybe other people felt that way. Yet, from all the thousand-yard stares and teary-eyed sniffling from those who made copious use of the conveniently placed Kleenex boxes around the exhibition spaces, I can fairly confidently say that I wasn’t alone feeling too shaken for revenge fantasies.

Why? Because the 9/11 Museum is an unyieldingly theatrical, physically and emotionally overwhelming experience that lies somewhere at the intersection of the jump scares and shock value of a haunted house (oh god! A frayed elevator motor! 200 people died in and around the elevators on 9/11! Aaahh! The only intact windowpane from the 82nd floor of the South Tower!), a cathedral at the absolute limit of intimidating Hand of God architecture, plunging viewers into dramatic moments of hellish darkness and heavenly luminosity, and a tomb. To be fair, part of the over-the-topness of the 9/11 Memorial Museum is unavoidable, related to the aesthetics of the attacks themselves. If we’re being honest and with the benefit of hindsight, the attacks on September 11th were a bit much, even as far as terrorist attacks go and even as far as Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks go. From the alarming photograph of smiling happy people with United Airlines Flight 93 hijacker Ziad Jarrah at the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Florida to the exploding fireballs of the South Tower and the Pentagon to the final collapse of the Twin Towers, as well as the cloud of cancerous dust that followed, chasing people down the street and eventually enveloping Lower Manhattan, the 9/11 attacks are imbued with a sense of cinematic unreality like a Michael Bay disaster flick. And not even a particularly good one. Partially because we’ve seen these images ad nauseam for the past twenty years, many of us have become desensitized to their extremity even when revisiting them in yearly anniversaries.

Section of steel facade, North Tower, floors 93-96 (photo by author)

The 9/11 Memorial Museum doesn’t allow for this kind of emotional detachment or visual complacency. It’s one thing to watch on television or see photographs; it’s another to be confronted with repetitive blow-by-blow representations of the attacks on copious screens one after another throughout an exhibition space, while surrounded by personal items from survivors and victims like found wallets, bloody shoes, eyeglasses and dwarfed by a distorted section of the North Tower’s steel façade bent horizontally by the force of impact of United Airlines Flight 11, displayed reverentially like a monstrous Richard Serra.

This horror is even further compounded by the museum’s relentlessness in preventing viewers from forgetting that they’re quite literally immersed within the remnants of the World Trade Center site. Take, for example, the pilgrimage to the Foundation and Memorial Halls. After walking out of the aforementioned slideshow of Godzilla-like panic, viewers come to an overlook to glimpse the World Trade Center’s original slurry wall. Built to hold back the groundwater and Hudson River, the slurry wall looms over the cavernous Foundation Hall that showcases objects like the Last Column, a 36-foot column plastered with photographs, writing, and prayer cards that was finally removed from Ground Zero on May 30, 2002. Viewers are then plunged back into a dim ramp, illuminated by a video installation of the Missing posters that proliferated through the city in the days after the attacks. Emerging from the shadows again, there’s yet another overlook above the Memorial Hall. This Hall contains an installation by artist Spencer Finch, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, made up of 2,983 paper panels painted in various shades of blue, alongside Tom Joyce’s Virgil quote—“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”—made out of forged steel from the World Trade Center. Notably, this quote is a strange choice from The Aeneid, referencing, as Phillip Kennicott explains in The Washington Post, “two young Trojan warriors—male lovers—who have just slaughtered enemy soldiers in their sleep.” Hmmm? Despite the head-scratching quote that, as a professor told The New York Times, “is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial,” the conjoined installation of Finch and Joyce’s work seems like a meditative respite. That is, until you notice a small plaque on the installation, indicating that behind the wall is a repository housing the remains of many who died in the 9/11 attacks. There’s no avoiding it–you’re in people’s final resting place.

The Survivor Stairs (photo by Alexandria Deters)

But, you can’t just get down to take a closer look at these installations or a brick from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout that’s peculiarly on view nearby. This brick is connected to the unhinged and bloodthirsty Revealed: Hunt for Bin Laden exhibition, or as I like to call it, the propaganda exhibition, if only because of a celebratory video recording a joyful hoard of people with Hulk Hogan hair chanting “C-I-A! C-I-A!” after the successful Operation Neptune Spear. Yikes. But, that could be a subject of its own review…or dissertation. Nevertheless, in order to stare at this brick and ponder Osama’s interior decorating skills, viewers have to descend an escalator or stairs that run alongside the cracked yet preserved “Survivor Stairs,” which connected the World Trade Center’s Austin J. Tobin Plaza to the Vesey Street sidewalk. A photograph on a wall text portrays a crowd of dust-enshrouded people, some covering their mouths with jackets and other articles of clothing, descending those same stairs. Chilling. And that’s even before your ears perk up at the strains of what sounds like a pan flute rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which adds just a dash of camp with its on-the-nose religiosity to the ghostly atmosphere.

This isn’t the only moment that feels ripe for genuflecting. In fact, much of the 9/11 Memorial Museum is filled with deep religious undertones, from the step-by-step account of the September 11 attacks that ends up feeling like a modern-day Stations of the Cross (the first plane, the second plane, the South Tower falls…) to the Christlike photograph of the deceased Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain to the FDNY and the first official victim of the 9/11 attacks, as he’s carried out of the Ground Zero rubble by a group of firemen and rescue workers after being killed by debris. Of course, some of these moments of devoutness are more obvious than others such as an entire section that displays religious imagery like the cross found in the remains of 6 World Trade Center and a steel beam with crosses and Star of Davids cut out by ironworkers. Perhaps my favorite inclusion in this section is a Bible page from the Book of Matthew that was found fused to a segment of metal, reading, “an eye for an eye.” Like the Virgil quote, are we talking about the terrorists or victims here? Odd.

Chelsea Jeans Memorial containing articles of clothing and display units covered in World Trade Center dust (Photo credit: Jin Lee)

But even inclusions that aren’t necessarily overtly sacred seem almost like Christian relics. Perhaps none so much as the perfectly conserved storefront of Chelsea Jeans, formerly located on Broadway near Fulton Street, enclosed in a separate room. With American flag T-shirts and stacks of jeans blanketed in a grey coat of debris, it feels almost like the grisly yet holy objects related to saintly torture preserved in certain European cathedrals. This store died for our sins! A consumerist martyr! I mean, can Americans truly understand suffering if we’re not praying at the altar of destroyed capitalism? I don’t think so. Now, some could criticize this overdramatic religiosity, but to me, it perfectly presents how Americans grasp for meaning in seemingly meaningless chaos, which tends to gravitate towards religious zealotry or whacko conspiracy theories that also frequently take on the dogmatic nature of religion. Pick your poison.

This isn’t to say everything in the 9/11 Museum is a testament to excess. In addition to the undoubtedly heartwarming and adorable exhibition K-9 Courage, which provides a much-needed breather from the onslaught of unease with puppy heroism, perhaps the most moving section is the modest yet profoundly affecting In Memoriam, located within the South Tower footprint and alongside a hall presenting, among other tributes, a series of stars-and-stripes and Curious George-emblazoned memorial motorcycles that tickled the trash aesthetic lover in me (Talk about Americana!). Unlike the winding, claustrophobia of the September 11th exhibition, In Memoriam is a simple room with individual photographs of the 2,977 people killed in the September 11th attacks, as well as the six people who were killed in the earlier 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Surrounding the photographs is a smattering of small vitrines with items from some of the victims’ lives, including a giraffe figurine from Leonard White’s collection and an unfinished knitting by Charles Alan Zion. Within this room also lies a central video installation where the names of all the almost 3,000 victims are read, along with a memory from a family member or loved one. One I heard recalled their son impersonating Elvis in college frat parties.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum’s In Memoriam exhibition (Photo by Dan Winters)

However, the floor-to-ceiling installation of the photographs of the nearly 3,000 victims is affecting in and of itself. From cheesy vacation pics to Sears Portrait Studio-esque glamour shots to stoic official police and firefighter headshots, these images are transfixing individually on just a purely visual level—What images do we choose to remember our loved ones by? Yet in their entirety, they confront viewers with the human toll of the attacks, somehow even more vividly than the gigantic name-emblazoned Memorial pools outside the Museum. In particular, what’s noticeable is just the sheer diversity of ages, races, and ethnicities of the victims, a fact that should be noted given that the attacks and how we choose to remember them have remained hyper-politicized even twenty years later.

Partisan politics shouldn’t have anything to do with it anyway (luckily the Museum largely avoids sanctifying “America’s Mayor”/tooting COVID transmitter/Just For Men-leaker Rudy Giuliani or President turned Jerry Saltz’s favorite artiste George W. Bush). Instead, the 9/11 Museum exquisitely implicates all Americans in its gaudy glory. On the one hand, some of what it mirrors is the best of us: the astounding selflessness, bravery, and lack of self-preservation that led people, both civilians and first responders alike, to go back into the Twin Towers in an attempt to save others. Certain objects and stories just stick out such as a window washer’s squeegee that was used by a group of people to hack their way through a wall to safety when stuck in an elevator.

Slurry wall (photo by Alexandria Deters)

But, on the other hand, in its overpowering exaggeration, the 9/11 Museum responds to national tragedy as all Americans do—through ghastly preoccupation, overwrought emotionality, theme park-style immersion, and lots of (at least archival video) pyrotechnics. And those who would sneer critically at it have to ask why they either work for publications that consistently showcase equally gruesome imagery or they continually share videos on their social media platforms of violent death snuff films, whether in the name of education, activism, or raising awareness.

As much as I revel in its melodramatic spectacle, the truth is there is a point to it. Americans have to be beaten about the head with this level of traumatic bombast in order to understand devastating events. If the past year and a half have taught us anything, simply being told doesn’t cut it. A not-insignificant portion of Americans assumed COVID-19 was a hoax until they were being intubated. 9/11 is no different. Given a more tasteful, reserved display, a lot of our fellow countrymen would still be howling about Building 7 and inside jobs on their way out.

Instead, you’re led, bleary-eyed and nearly catatonic, to the gift shop to blankly and shakily do your patriotic duty and purchase flags that were flown over the 9/11 Memorial, bracelets with World Trade Center charms, a print of Obama, Biden, Hillary, and co. watching Osama bin Laden get taken out, and any number of assorted 9/11 keychains, magnets, totebags, and patches. As for me? I went with Search and Rescue doggie doll and a marble Remember 9/11 mug. I can’t think of anything more American than dwelling on 9/11 while drinking my morning coffee.

My 9/11 Museum gift shop haul

One thought on “The Closest Some of Us Will Ever Get to Heaven: The 9/11 Museum is the Greatest American Museum

  1. Amazing piece. It’s almost like 9-11 is so wide with conflicted meaning that Americans feel compelled to throw the kitchen sink into it. Like those “memorial” concerts that somehow had to include “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “New York State of Mind.” What point was everyone trying to make?

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