The Museum of Jewish Heritage is partnering with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum for Regarding the Pain of Others, a really intriguing program on February 4 about how and when images of atrocity should be used. Our director, David Marwell, will moderate a panel comprised of: Clifford Chanin, senior program advisor, National September 11 Memorial and Museum; Leora Kahn, curator/activist; Svetlana Mintcheva, director, Arts Program, National Coalition Against Censorship; and Sydney Schanberg, war correspondent. Clifford Chanin took the time to answer some of my questions about his museum's efforts to memorialize the September 11 attacks and how they will approach some of the more horrific images. The image here is a rendering of what the galleries may look like.
Betsy A: The 9/11 attacks were televised around the world, so most of your visitors will have already seen images of the attacks many times. How does this inform your choices about how you will use the images in the museum?
Clifford C: We start with the premise that the 9/11 attacks may well have been seen by more people than any other event in history. The spread of technology makes this not only possible but likely. Thus, the notion of collective witness and collective response – even among people who may have had different vantages on the events – is a key element in thinking about how to present images of the day. Of course, for an increasing number of visitors to the museum, the images will be new. Overall, however, we have the sense that many visitors will have the images of the day as part of their personal histories and that connecting this personal engagement with the broader sweep of the event will be important.
BA: How can images of atrocity be used in a responsible way? What is the best possible outcome? How do you prevent the viewer from becoming numb or not engaging with the subject matter?
CC: Responsibility in the handling of such images seems to me to depend on the purposefulness which determines their use. We know the story itself contains horrific moments and these may be best clarified for viewers through an encounter with a disturbing images. Overall, I recoil at the idea that images of mass murder should be used to create a sense of spectacle. Rather, it seems appropriate when a specific narrative purpose is determined for a specific image. In the case of 9/11, the images provide a critical testimony about the details of the attack, and how our responses changed over the course of the day.
BA: How do you go about memorializing something as recent as the September 11 attacks, when our knowledge about the events is still growing?
CC: No doubt, the ramifications of the 9/11 attacks are ongoing and the museum will not have all the answers about the meaning and significance of the day. However, we do start with the idea that 9/11 marks a turning point in contemporary history – both as an attack and as an act that was witnessed as widely as it was. Using this as a point of departure for programming and temporary exhibitions will allow for continuing explorations of what it all means. But the museum has the core mission of memorializing the victims of the attacks, and recounting the events of the day, including the extraordinary response to the catastrophe – and this part of the mission can be met based on what we know today. As for the continuing impact of 9/11 on the global community, we are working on some ideas within the exhibition that would allow for an evolving, interactive tracking of some of its effects. Stay tuned!
BA: How do you foresee the museum evolving in the future, once we all have more hindsight?
CC: Over the course of time, what I hope the museum is able to do is incorporate new and more detailed elements of the story through its exhibitions and programming. As our research and documentation proceed, we are learning new things about the ways in which people responded, particularly in the first moments of the attacks, and will be increasingly able to provide details about the depth of thinking and improvisation that the crisis produced. As an example, staff oral historians recently met with a number of the people who were on duty in various airport control towers on 9/11 and heard in fascinating detail how they began to think about grounding planes already up in the air and even managing the tens of thousands of people who would be stranded at the local airports. The profile of an established system facing a crisis and improvising its response so successfully is really fascinating. There will be a lot of back story available that will add real depth to the central narrative of what happened on that day.