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Memorial Museum

Differences on ground zero


It seemed self-evident at the time: A museum devoted to documenting the events of September 11, 2001, would have to include photographs of the hijackers who turned four passenger jets into missiles. Then two and a half years ago, plans to use the pictures were made public.

New York City's fire chief protested that such a display would "honour" the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre. A New York Post editorial called the idea "appalling". Groups representing rescuers, survivors and victims' families asked how anyone could even think of showing the faces of the men who killed their relatives, colleagues and friends.

The anger took some museum officials by surprise. "You don't create a museum about the Holocaust and not say that it was the Nazis who did it, " said Joseph Daniels, chief executive of the memorial and museum foundation.

Such are the exquisite sensitivities that surround every detail in the creation of the September 11 Memorial Museum, being built on land that many revere as hallowed ground. During eight years of planning, every step has been muddied with contention.

There have been bitter fights over the museum's financing, which have delayed its opening until at least next year, as well as continuing arguments over its location, seven stories below ground;which relics should be exhibited;and where unidentified human remains should rest. Even the souvenir key chains to be sold in the gift shop have become a focus of rancour. But nothing has been more fraught than figuring out how to tell the story.

The sunken granite pools that opened last September 11 and that occupy the footprints of the fallen towers were designed as places to mourn and remember the dead. Yet nowhere on the plaza is there even a mention of the terrorist attacks that caused the destruction. The job of documenting and interpreting the history has been left to the museum, and it is an undertaking pockmarked with contradictions.

Alice Greenwald, the director of the new museum, and her team must simultaneously honour the dead and the survivors;preserve an archaeological site and its artifacts;and try to offer a comprehensible explanation of a once-inconceivable occurrence. They must speak to vastly different audiences that include witnesses at the scene and around the globe, as well as children born long after the wreckage had been cleared. And many of those listening have long-simmering, deeply felt opinions about how the museum should take shape.

Even the name - "Memorial Museum" - is something of a contradiction in terms. In the context of a memorial, for example, the 17-foot, two-ton crossbeam where Mass was held every day during the cleanup is a sacred relic, an icon that vibrates with emotional and ideological resonance. In a museum, this same hunk of iron is simply evidence. So it is with the photographs of the 19 hijackers: They are simultaneously documentation and abominations.

Reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialise heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise. No one anticipated how much.

As the former associate director and a 19-year veteran of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Greenwald knows a lot about ghastly things. Yet even that museum did not have to wrestle with the challenge of being built where the horrors had occurred and while the families of victims were still grieving. Since being appointed director of the September 11 Museum in 2006, Greenwald has inherited much of the distrust some of the families feel toward officials involved in developing the site.

In particular, many families are upset about a plan to place approximately 14, 000 unidentified or unclaimed remains of those who died - typically bone fragments or dried bits of tissue - in the museum below ground. The repository will be controlled by the city's medical examiner and sealed off from everyone but family members. Visitors will just see an outer wall inscribed with a quotation from Virgil: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time. "

Seventeen family members have filed suit against the city as part of an effort to reopen the decision. They view it as degrading to set the remains in a museum below ground. Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother, Sean, a firefighter, died in the north tower, said the insensitivity was mirrored in the museum's decision to stock its gift shop with $40 souvenir key chains engraved with the Virgil phrase. "They're marketing the headstones of our loved ones on key chains, " she said. "How disgusting is that?" But to Greenwald, the decision to keep the remains underground represented an equally earnest effort to fulfil a longstanding promise to other families who had sought, above all, to ensure that the remains stayed at bedrock.

Everyone agrees that it is the museum's job is to tell the truth. The question, though, is how much truth.

Many of the decisions Greenwald and her colleagues are making today may be unmade in the future. Future curators will choose differently as time passes, anguish eases, and America's position in the world shifts. As Greenwald said, "This is a museum without an ending. " For the present, though, the National September 11 Memorial Museum is emphasising a story of hope over despair, and the resiliency and selflessness of the rescue effort, not its mishaps.

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