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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Not A Spectacle, But Not a Motivator, Either

by columnist Madeline Karp

About this time last year, I attended a NEMA conference session entitled “Spectacle or Motivator? Violent Content in Exhibitions.” Amy Weisser, Director of Exhibit Development at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, spent a good deal of time talking about how she managed to look at violent or upsetting content day  in and day out.  I specifically remember her saying she hoped to honor the collections pieces and narrate a compelling story, rather than make a specific political or opinion statement about 9/11.

This week, to mark the  anniversary of 9/11, NBC News’ PhotoBlog gave us a sneak peek of what the museum will look like, and of some of the artifacts on display.

It seems like the museum is achieving everything Amy Weisser wanted it to. As I scrolled through the photos, I felt rooted to my desk chair. It was almost as if I were clinically examining an old wound recently ripped open. Sure, there was grief involved, but also the ability to look at it with perspective.

I grew up in New Jersey, about 30 minutes outside of New York City, and at the time, almost everyone I knew was affected in some way or another by the collapse of the Twin Towers. My cousins all evacuated to New Jersey, unsure if they’d see their lower Manhattan apartment again. More than ten people from my hometown were killed. Half of my classmates were sent home from school. Almost everyone drove to the town lookout point to watch the smoke rise off the skyline, and those who didn’t drove to pick up loved ones evacuated from NYC.

It seems clear to me that this is very likely the museum of my generation. The things that have happened there – the stories the space tells – are not abstract anecdotes that happened “somewhere else.” The museum narrates a seminal moment in my life, and the lives of my peers.

…And I can’t say I want to go. If it was an intense experience looking at the pictures, how much more intense will the museum be in reality?

This makes me feel a little guilty as a museum professional.  It’s important to go to museums that interpret difficult and deeply emotional content, both to learn as a professional and grow as a person. But, as Kimberly Shockley of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum said in the NEMA seminar, visitors tend to shut down when confronted with too much emotional content. I am that person.

I think the 9/11 Memorial and Museum knows this will happen. I think the curators know that there are no neutral visitors. The history narrated in this museum is distilled living history– many of us still are negotiating our relationship to this moment in time on a regular basis. It’s really heavy content. It compels one to reflect, without even visiting the site. That is a great success on the museum’s part.

So, not a spectacle. Check. But now how to motivate people like me to come? That’s the next puzzle.

What do you think? Do you have a hard time visiting museums that interpret uncomfortable topics? What can museums do to bring in visitors who may have preconceived notions that their exhibits will be a downer? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

To learn more about the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, click here.


1 Comment

  1. Gretchen

    I’m not sure I have good answers to many of the questions you posed at the end, but this concept of how to curate/interpret difficult topics is something Boston will have to figure out as it attempts to memorialize the Marathon bombings. Definitely food for thought.

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