The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opens to the public this week. Sadly, we have gotten all too practiced at memorializing human tragedy – the 6th Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, TX; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN; the Oklahoma City National Memorial at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and the list goes on. In each instance senseless violence and awful, terrible, heart rendering loss is remembered in solemn displays that mix our collective grief with, strangely, tourist-like attractions that often require admissions fees and include “gift shops” where one can purchase everything from books and t-shirts to what can only be referred to as memorial kitsch. I don’t want to be cynical here. I have visited most of these places and I have happily paid the entrance fees—though I have avoided making purchases at the gift shops—and I would do so again, but there is something oddly unsettling about the process and I don’t quite have the words to express what it is.
Sometimes photographs can gesture to what words are hard pressed to express—or at least to express in any way that we might consider to be focused and efficient in a clearly narrative or propositional form. The image above shows several members of the public looking through the windows into the 9/11 Memorial Museum prior to its official opening this coming week, though others appear to be simply passing by. None of the recognizable artifacts of the tragedy of 9/11 are present. One cannot see the salvaged tridents recovered from the World Trade Center, or the accouterments from fire fighters and other first responders, or the cards, patches, and other mementos left as part of various vernacular memorials that surrounded the site of Ground Zero. And truth to tell, but for the caption that marks this as a glass façade that looks into the museum it would be hard to know exactly what we are looking at. But what we can see are the mirrored reflections, both of those who have stopped to look intently through the glass façade and of the life of the city that seems to be going on around the memorial and museum; and here, not just people who appear to be walking by, but also a city that is undergoing construction as marked by the crane in the center of the image, but also those reflected in the mirror (in the upper right corner) that would otherwise be outside of the frame of the image.
The key to the photograph is not that we simply see people stopping to look or passing by or that we see a city under construction, but that all of these things are accented by their mirrored doubling in the reflections cast off from the glass façade of the museum itself. It is the way in which the photograph captures (and performs?) the reflection that invites something of a critical sensitivity to what is that stands before us. Whether passers-by choose to stop and look or not, it would seem, is of little matter; what matters is that the memorial is a visual echo of the world that surrounds it. We cannot escape it even if we wanted to—whether we choose to pay the “entrance fee” or not. That is something worth thinking about.
Credit: Anthony Behar/AP