My essay “Atrocity Exhibition” for The Los Angeles Review of Books is an attempt to describe what I’ve found so strange and unsettling about the new 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero over several visits there, dating back to May of this year, when the museum first opened. Like many New Yorkers, I think, I had profound misgivings about the idea of a 9/11 museum in the first place: though I didn’t lose anyone I’d known well in the attacks on the Twin Towers, that day and the weeks that followed were bewildering like none other I’d ever lived through, filled with dread and sorrow and a confusion that slowed time. My city had been attacked–those planes slicing into the towers had been act of war, the terror and disbelief a deliberate by-product–and we pored over the Times when each day’s issue made it to the newsstands (this was print media’s last hurrah, the End Days of its primacy) for explanations of what we’d witnessed, stayed glued to cable news for the slow-drip of information and the endless replay of the same dream-like images. When the posters for the 9/11 Museum started appearing on the subway this spring, featuring a marketing slogan with an uncomfortably Orwellian ring to it (“History Remembered”), I felt repelled by the whole business on a gut-level, but I was also intrigued. What would a museum look like that sought to memorialize a series of terrorist attacks that two billion people around the world had witnessed more or less in real time? Would it inflame the old memories–we all had them, after all–or inform them further? Was descending into a $700 million bad-memory regenerator even a good idea?
If you’ve read the essay on LARB, you already know what I think. The museum, to me, is another example of how 9/11, having no precedent in recent American history, has short-circuited the institutions entrusted to respond to it, inspiring epic over-reactions (the Homeland Security Advisory System, the invasion of Iraq, data mining by the NSA, etc.) and blunders so elaborate that they hardly seem real.
This is One World Trade Center, or, as I refer to it in the essay, One Air-Freshener. The nickname is fairly recent. During my teaching year (September to the end of May) I drive past Ground Zero once a week when I’m heading back to Brooklyn from Vermont. That means that for the last two years, I’ve been watching the new tower being completed from close up. It’s weirdly stubby looking for a building so tall, and the crown on top, which I compare to an upside-down Tilt-a-Whirl in the essay, looks like it was photoshopped on as a joke by an underling at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. But it’s the slots near the top of the tower (they recently acquired some red sheathing for visual accent) that seem like the oddest design feature to me, and they inspired the nickname. For months, while I gazed up at the building from my car, I couldn’t figure out what the slots reminded me of and why they looked so out of place. But then it hit me: the grids at the top, no matter what their purpose, make the tower look like a giant air-freshener. David Childs, the architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill responsible for the tower’s design, had unwittingly made the tower look like a skyscraper-sized, plug-in air-freshening device.
I immediately began speculating on the scents that One World Trade Center would be emitting into the air over lower Manhattan. There was the mysterious sweet smell over parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn that had turned out to be fenugreek seeds from a fragrance plant in New Jersey; or the burnt smell of roasting coffee from D’Amico on Court Street that had some residents of Carroll Gardens up in arms. I decided that the best bet would be the smell of money, given the forces that have been battling for almost thirteen years now over the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. With the flood of offshore capital remaking the post-9/11 city into a condo tower farm, why not fill the streets of Manhattan with the smell of newly minted $100 bills? That would keep the city one step ahead of Moscow and Dubai …
It’s the museum itself that I devote the most space to in the essay, though. I have to admit that, even after a handful of visits now, it’s still a mystery why anyone would want to subject themselves to the experience. It’s disturbing on every level. The preparation begins–at least it does for anyone who takes the subway–in the Fulton Street station, where the signage for the Memorial and Museum features the “severe clear” of that morning in its graphic design, a trigger that, to this day, makes my chest tighten and my heart-rate quicken. (Surely I am not alone in this. What about the survivors, or the victims’ families, or the first-responders who made it out alive?) The two blue bars evoking the towers in the graphic design are the first acts of coercion inflicted on the psyche and a signal of how the museum operates.
As I write in the essay, the curators of the museum seem to want nothing less than to reach inside your head and re-formulate your memories of 9/11. (The language I use is a little stronger.) This manipulation continues at the entrance, where you’re asked to pass through a replica of airport security, complete with gray tubs for your wallet and your belt–at least you don’t have to take off your shoes–and peppers you on every side while you enter the museum’s exhibition spaces. In the Times, the critic Holland Cotter likened the museum to a site of “religious pilgrimage,” complete with sanctified remains, and this was clearly one of the models for the crypt-like interior spaces and the winding descent that visitors take to the foundation floor. Davis Brody Bond, the architecture firm responsible for the design, has done immaculate work. But there are moments so jarring and exhibits so crass that you have to wonder about the motivation behind the entire project. The most obvious example is the jumper’s alcove, a recessed corner in the exhibition space devoted to reconstructing September 11th–the day itself–that features images that were placed under a press embargo after the attacks. Here is the warning on the outside wall:
I honestly can’t think of any educational or memorializing value in a dark, crowded corner of a museum where people huddle, breathless and a little giddy, to watch projected images of office workers jumping from the upper floors of a skyscraper so they’ll die that way instead of being burned alive. It’s as if, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, there were a booth devoted to the history of the snuff film, and you could pull the curtain shut and watch people being murdered in the dark.
On my first visit to the 9/11 Museum in late May the crowds were significant (tickets had sold out a few days in advance), but there was still plenty of room to circulate through the exhibition spaces without any of the gridlock that’s so common in the city’s most popular museums. There was a somber air inside, and visitors were mostly wary, tentative. I had a woman hiss at me once for taking out my camera phone in Foundation Hall, and there was hardly any chatter in the dark warrens or along the ramps that conveyed us through the carnage and its holy artifacts.
By mid-July, when I last visited, the museum was packed with a far more raucous crowd. People posed for cellphone pictures in front of the ruined fire trucks and an architectural model of the Twin Towers. If the museum was still limiting the number of tickets sold by the half-hour, it was hard to see the evidence; there were bottlenecks through much of the September 11th exhibit, making it hard to filter through, and a scrum of gawkers was waiting to step inside the jumper’s alcove. The museum had clearly made its way onto the regular NYC tourist itinerary, alongside F.A.O. Schwarz, Madame Tussauds on 42nd Street, and Aladdin on Broadway.
Earlier, while I was making my way through the fenced-in pedestrian paths that lead you to the memorial site, a construction worker was taking a break outside of One World Trade and watching the crowd flow past. We had just come out of a tunnel onto West Street, and some of the visitors didn’t know which way they should be going.
“Just keep walking,” the hardhat said behind a fence. “Keep walking.” He let out a laugh that was hard to decipher. The crowd laughed back a little nervously. I knew where I was heading, but I hung back to watch.
“Keep on walking,” he kept on saying from behind the fence. “Just keep walking.” He was the barker who didn’t believe in the carnival. The crowd kept streaming out of the tunnel and onto West Street, heading for Ground Zero.