Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The 9/11 Museum Has A Problematic Legacy. Can It Be Saved?

The museum's handling of the Sept. 11 attacks has long received criticisms, which have become more glaring as the 20th anniversary approaches, scholars say.

From the moment the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened in the spring of 2014, the scathing criticisms and reviews began rolling in.

As then-BuzzFeed News editor Steve Kandell, whose sister died on Sept. 11, described in “The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction,” the museum was “the logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy.”

Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote that the museum experience “isn’t history, it’s spectacle,” plunging visitors into “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing on every television screen in America.”

Other reporters, critics and early visitors similarly pointed to a bevy of problems: the commercialism of the museum, the Islamophobic rhetoric in the museum’s discussions of terrorism and its few attempts to provide context to the events of 9/11.

Visiting the museum now, it’s clear these public criticisms had little effect on the museum, and not much has changed in seven years. The museum is built around remnants of the original World Trade Center towers, giving visitors an intensely physical and tactile experience. Displays and placards emphasize the towers’ majesty and architectural ingenuity. Using eyewitness reports, artifacts, and video and audio footage, the centerpiece of the museum’s “historical exhibition” recreates the morning of 9/11, down to the minute. With just cursory mentions of 9/11’s complicated legacy — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. as a surveillance state, Islamophobia and racism, the chronic health problems of 9/11 first responders, among many other issues — there are very few moments of confronting uncomfortable truths. 

The inside of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, United States, on Oct. 12, 2017. On the left is the "slurry wall
The inside of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, United States, on Oct. 12, 2017. On the left is the "slurry wall," which protected the original World Trade Center towers from the Hudson River. On the right is the Last Column, the final remaining piece of the towers, which first responders kept intact during the recovery and excavation efforts and decorated. (Photo by Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It results in an overly simplistic and uncritical narrative, promoting an excessive sense of patriotism and nationalism — ironically, much like what happened immediately after 9/11 itself. As the 20th anniversary approaches, the museum is facing an existential crisis and financial woes due to its reliance on tourists. (The controversies surrounding the museum’s planning process are also the subject of a divisive new documentary.) Several scholars who have studied the museum and other kinds of memorial museums told HuffPost the museum is full of crucial problems, like its lack of context. There are also contradictions in its approach, such as trying to appear apolitical while, intentionally or not, presenting visitors with a highly political narrative, and seeming to be torn between its dual roles as a memorial and historical museum.

“There’s a hypersensitivity to what kinds of statements the museum can make because it is also a memorial museum,” said Marita Sturken, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “So that really constrains what it can do as an institution, in part because it feels very beholden to family members. Many, but not all, feel a sense of ownership there. So I think that is really the fundamental basis for its timidity as an institution to make sense of the event itself, because part of making sense of that event is also to show how the people who were killed that day, their memory was marshaled into two devastating and brutal wars. And that’s obviously a very painful, difficult issue.”

For many scholars, the museum’s most problematic aspects originate from its focus on the day itself, with relatively few areas that contextualize the events.

“I think that the creators were trying to avoid politicizing and historicizing 9/11 by really focusing on the day. But it created this highly political and historicizing experience,” said Amy Sodaro, associate professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. “This really intense focus on the minutes and the hours of 9/11 ends up kind of giving no bigger context, and so, avoids all of the difficult questions and problems and issues that 9/11 has raised.”

In response to these criticisms over the years, the museum’s leaders have explained that it’s primarily meant as a place for visitors to remember the lives lost and bear witness, a message that’s also emphasized throughout the museum. Before the pandemic, the museum supplemented its physical exhibitions with public panel discussions and other events delving into 9/11’s legacy (and during the pandemic, those events have been virtual). But the scholars say that approach is insufficient because that programming won’t reach the bulk of museum visitors: tourists who will likely only visit the museum once for a couple of hours. Instead, the museum has an imperative to provide much more of that context in its permanent and physical collection.

I worry that busloads of young students come and go to the museum leaving with a sense of the horror of 9/11 but little to no opportunities for historical, contextualized, nuanced conversations about the terror attacks. Tamara Issak, assistant professor at St. John's University and author of "How Does It Feel to be a Problem at the 9/11 Museum?"

The sections of the museum that focus on the political context of the attacks frame terrorism as a simplistic “us vs. them” issue and emphasize Americans’ “unity” and “solidarity” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In addition, there are only brief mentions of the Islamophobic and racist attacks that Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans, and Americans of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian descent faced after 9/11.

The museum also does little to differentiate between the violent extremists who perpetrated the attacks and Islam itself. Consequently, it creates a harmful conflation of terrorism with Muslim identity — a theme that Tamara Issak, assistant professor at St. John’s University, has documented in her research, including in a paper entitled “How Does It Feel to be a Problem at the 9/11 Museum?”

“The individual parts of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum brought together make a persuasive whole that presents a very particular narrative of Sept. 11 that, intentionally or not, stereotypes Muslims,” she wrote in an email.

In addition, the museum’s focus on individual stories and eyewitness accounts has actually turned them all into one overarching narrative, which inadvertently tells visitors how to feel and respond, said Sarah Senk, associate professor of culture and communication at California State University Maritime Academy.

“I’ve argued in something I’ve written that it’s less about education and more about indoctrination,” Senk said. “There are these signs that say: ‘WE INVITE YOU’ and it’s, like, in all-caps. When I saw them the first time, I was just imagining the Uncle Sam poster.”

What does ‘never forget’ mean after 9/11 — how on Earth do we forget something that 2 billion people saw live, captured on camera, and something that’s been disseminated on this unimaginable scale? I think this is why I think 9/11 as a particular event fascinates me over other events. Sarah Senk, associate professor of culture and communication at California State University Maritime Academy

Senk’s research at the museum has focused on two interactive portions: a digital guestbook and a recording studio (both now suspended due to the pandemic) for visitors to share their responses to the museum and their own 9/11 stories. Some of those messages have been featured in prominent areas of the museum.

“On the face of it, if you go in, it looks like it’s this really democratic thing, where it’s inviting everybody to offer their testimony,” she said. “The goal was to not have a history by the victor narrative. The goal was actually to have this dialogic museum where the description and the feelings about events could change over time, and they would keep recording that and keep adding it to the collection.”

Yet, over the many times she has visited the museum for her research, she noticed that the testimonies never really changed.

“Even when you have this endless collection, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get nondominant accounts of the story — and especially if the museum itself is structuring, like, what you’re feeling for you, without you knowing it.”

As a result, “the act of remembering” turns into “this really political thing, where it’s like, you’re a good citizen, you’re a good person — if you come here and remember in a certain way,” she said.

Inside of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
Inside of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

According to Issak, the museum’s audio tour similarly presents visitors with a particular story, “even though the tour is at pains to create a full-circle narrative of Sept. 11.” 

“The narration is more focused on imparting a sense of closure than a sense of historical context,” she said. 

When asked if there were other comparable examples or models for the 9/11 Museum to follow, Sturken explained it’s not unusual for museums to combine memorial and historical elements. But the 9/11 Museum is unusual in doing it on such a grand scale and making it “a commercial enterprise.” 

Sodaro said she has been impressed by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which “tells the story from slavery all the way up to mass incarceration today and really leaves you with the understanding that the legacy is ongoing.” 

“That, to me, is one of not very many examples of memorial museums that I can think of that do a really good job in connecting the past to present and showing visitors the ongoing reverberations of the past,” she said.

For the most part, the scholars had a hard time pointing to an equivalent example. And some of them posited that it may be uniquely challenging to encapsulate 9/11 in a museum because it was such a singular and highly public event.

“When you think about things like Holocaust Remembrance Day, there’s a clear-cut message about ‘never forgetting’ or ‘never again,’” Senk said. “And it’s also about remembering events for which a lot of material evidence was destroyed. So what does ‘never forget’ mean after 9/11 — how on Earth do we forget something that 2 billion people saw live, captured on camera, and something that’s been disseminated on this unimaginable scale? I think this is why I think 9/11 as a particular event fascinates me over other events.”

Similarly, Sodaro said that in other memorial museums she has studied, “most of them focus on these violent pasts that were long and unfolding and, you know, in many cases, attempted to be hidden.” By contrast, 9/11 “was so spectacularly public.”

Some of the scholars said the museum’s creators could have benefited from waiting longer to build it. But they also concluded it was probably impossible, given both the scale of 9/11 as an event and the high-profile process of developing the museum.

As Sodaro observed, by being billed “as a national museum, from the start, it was tasked with telling the official story and having to navigate and negotiate with all of these different stakeholders,” she said. “I think the smaller the museum, the more grassroots it is, the better they usually are at addressing the difficult tasks and making connections to the present in ways that make people really uncomfortable.”

Twenty years later, it’s increasingly more imperative for the museum to confront uncomfortable truths.

“I worry that busloads of young students come and go to the museum leaving with a sense of the horror of 9/11 but little to no opportunities for historical, contextualized, nuanced conversations about the terror attacks,” Issak said.

Several of the scholars suggested it may be exceedingly difficult for the museum to change, given its current financial situation — and because adding complexity would be incompatible with the museum’s existing patriotic narrative and circumscribed timeline.

“If you say, ‘OK, let’s go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Let’s go back to U.S. investment in Saudi Arabia,’ each step backwards really produces a narrative that is much more complicit. It’s not about some innocent nation that was attacked out of the blue,” Sturken said. “The museum has a very patriotic, uncritical stand, so in a certain sense, it can’t coexist with a historical analysis that looks at the complicity of the nation, before and then after.”

A video of former president Barack Obama shows on a monitor at the exhibition "Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden" at the 9/11
A video of former president Barack Obama shows on a monitor at the exhibition "Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden" at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on Nov. 7, 2019, in New York City.

It’s telling that currently, the museum’s special exhibition is about the 2011 U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The tone of the exhibit sometimes takes on that of an adventure novel, detailing the strategies of the military and intelligence officials involved. At the end of the exhibit, there’s a video of talking-head interviews with various U.S. officials, ending with former President Barack Obama talking about the ingenuity of the mission, as if to tie it all up in one tidy package.

It’s indicative of how the museum in general handles most of its content that isn’t directly about the morning of 9/11. The sections of the museum focused on the aftermath of 9/11 get more and more surface-level as they move forward in time. For example, there’s a lot of detail about the excavation and recovery efforts in 2001 and 2002, but much less detail for more recent events. As visitors leave the historical exhibition area, one of the last displays is a wall of examples of 9/11 commemoration efforts around the world, up to 2011 and 2012. All of these point visitors toward neat answers, rather than impart the more complicated reality: that the legacy of 9/11 will be long and continue to evolve.

​​”How do you remember something still unfolding? It’s such a great question, and I think for me, that’s the dilemma of, like, 21st century commemoration and how it differs from some of the earlier events,” Senk said.

The dilemma of time is one that not only the museum, but also our culture at large has to address, Sturken said.

“How do we, in general, as a nation and society, define the timeline of this event?” she said. “If we’re just going to define it as this one spectacular, tragic day, then we will learn nothing from it. It should be one of the goals of such an institution that people come away from it having to learn something beyond that it was a tragic loss of life.”