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Echoes of the Fall 

The Smithsonian’s September 11 collection

Thursday, Jul 8 2004

The recent release of the 9/11 Commission findings broke just as my own private obsession was coming to a head. I’d only just seen the Naudet brothers’ fireman-training documentary that wound up capturing the only footage of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and the inside of Tower 1 as Tower 2 collapsed. I know that everyone else saw this when it was broadcast in March 2002, but we lost our cable just before 9/11 and didn’t watch TV for months.

Which might explain my belated thirst for details. I caught fragments of the big picture as they became revealed — the discovery of the hijackers’ identities, the ignored warnings from Minneapolis, etc. — but nobody ever seemed to go back to square one and lay out the continually revised timeline. What was that connection to Iraq again? Which is what made me so happy to also come across Inside 9-11: What Really Happened (another time capsule from March 2002) by the writers of the German magazine Der Spiegel — a blow-by-blow reconstruction from hotel receipts, phone bills, answering-machine messages and lots of interviews.

The most compelling sections concern those trapped in, or groping their way down from, the burning towers — window washer Jan Demczur’s remarkable escape from a stuck elevator by digging a hole through four layers of drywall with his squeegee handle is prominently featured — but the book is filled with many other equally fascinating tidbits. For example, Flight 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta spent the evening of September 7 at a bar in Hollywood, Florida, called Shuckums where he drank cranberry juice and played the Golden Tee ’97 video golf game for four hours and entered his initials on the high-scores screen. His associates drank Captain Morgan and argued over the bill.

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And now comes “September 11: Bearing Witness to History,” the official government-mandated exhibition of 9/11 artifacts gathered and curated into an interactive museum show by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and currently on view at the Japanese American National Museum. It’s a surprisingly small show, though managing to be awkwardly split across both floors of the museum. There is a sense of containment, even repression, about the carefully cleaned, vitrined, labeled and insured fragments of ground-zero detritus, sifted from the tons of debris at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. There is a one-of-each rhythm to the show — one twisted steel girder, one airliner fragment, one tattered Old Glory, one fire-truck door. Clearly the curatorial vision was one of restraint, good taste and a sensitivity to the potential emotional impact of such relics — indeed, while I was getting a preview, the museum staff was being briefed by professional counselors on the deployment of the 50 boxes of Kleenex ordered for the exhibit’s run.

Personally, I would have preferred a maximal effect. Even in its restrained, tasteful mode, the family-friendly interactive style of museum-display vernacular is alarmingly mall-like. Better to err on the side of the objects themselves than their mode of presentation. And while I appreciate the increased symbolic potency of presenting these items as isolated iconic totems, some of the choices — particularly as we move past the collapse of the towers and into the aftermath — seem diminished, arbitrary, or just downright peculiar. I have to admit I was moved to see the Naudet brothers’ camcorder and Jan Demczur’s squeegee handle, and one can imagine that the bullhorn used by President Bush to address recovery crews on September 14 is invested with similar meaning to those who get their news from Fox instead of Comedy Central. But it takes more imagination than I’ve got to find the poetry in some not-dead guy’s pants from the Pentagon, or Rudy Giuliani’s cell phone (courtesy Nokia).

Many of these choices make sense in light of the show’s “storytelling” slant. One entire room is devoted to interactive touch-screen kiosks containing a wide range of first-person accounts, and the final gallery invites visitors to contribute their own stories, which will be permanently archived in the Smithsonian. It’s a convincing progression — from Maria Cecilia Benavente’s shoes as touchstones to her story of escaping from the 103rd floor of the South Tower, to Nino Vendome’s apron (encrusted with police- and fire-department patches from the period when his restaurant served as a meeting place for rescue workers), to a collage-like scrapbook kept by a poet in Alabama, to the personal memories of each member of the audience, of every American.

But then, why devote a small theater to infotainment star Peter Jennings reminiscing about seeing the events of 9/11 happen while he was actually on television? Why do you think it took me so long to reconnect the cable? If it’s show biz they want, why not footage of Laurie Anderson (who, incidentally, wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on New York City) performing her remarkable concerts at Town Hall that made her seem like some kind of McLuhanesque oracle — “Here come the planes; they’re American planes” — just a week after the attacks? For that matter, given the access curator Kathleen Kendrick must have had to, well, just about anything, how about some FBI memos, the president’s copy of My Pet Goat, or the Golden Tee ’97 game from Shuckums?

 

Some of the decisions are beyond understanding: Why have a photograph of a section of wall covered with memorial fliers instead of a collection of actual fliers? Other choices are more troubling. Politics — apart from implying a de facto equivalency between governmental and media figureheads and rescue workers who lost their lives trying to save others — are skirted entirely. In the story-kiosk section, the only discussion of civil liberties occurs in the context of minor racism against Muslims — no mention of the thousands detained without due process. (To the museum’s credit, it will be screening 9066 to 9/11, a documentary exposing the parallels between the persecution of Japanese-Americans in WWII under Executive Order 9066 and the racist constitutional costs of Homeland Security.) I know that when you are speaking for the government you have to refrain from — how shall I say this? — implicating it in war crimes. Unfortunately, “September 11: Bearing Witness to History” speaks with deafening silence — tiptoeing conspicuously across a minefield of untold stories as soon as it strays from the unequivocal testimony of actual crime-scene evidence, inadvertently taking on an exploitative cast and hijacking the gravitas of the 9/11 relics for propaganda purposes.

It takes a long time to digest events as traumatic as 9/11. Frankly I don’t think our species has really taken in Hiroshima or the Holocaust. The continuing obsession with all things 9/11 is a sign that we are struggling to throw off the aesthetics of denial. Denial seems to be the art medium of the Zeros — whether it’s the Bush league’s increasingly strained game face or former Iraqi minister of information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf’s visionary aphasia. This is social sculpture by way of manufacturing consent: baroque virtual realities cut from whole cloth and melting into thin air. Don’t misunderstand me — go see this show, stand in the presence of these powerful shards of history. Feel their weight. Cry. Just don’t let them lure you into being part of some one else’s story. Especially one with a tacked-on happy ending that says America doesn’t have to change its ways.

SEPTEMBER 11: BEARING WITNESS TO HISTORY | JAPANESE AMERICAN NATIONAL MUSEUM, 369 E. First St., downtown Through August 15

  • The Smithsonian’s September 11 collection

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