In my junior year as an undergraduate, I took an anthropology seminar entitled Nature, Culture, Heritage from a visiting professor whose specialty was earthquakes. Other than Skyping a documentarian and playing Settlers of Catan during class, what I remember most was my final paper on dark tourism, specifically the preservation of World War II heritage at Auschwitz and Tule Lake. I won't quote my sources (nor myself, even though it's a damn good paper), but the research I did for that project opened up a new dimension of self-reflection.
What does it mean to have monuments that, unlike the Pyramids of Egypt, which are lauded as pinnacles of human achievement, instead serve as repositories of tragedy, trauma and negative memory? What does it say about us that we flock to them in droves and take selfies? This is what I asked myself as I waited in line outside the 9/11 Memorial Museum, driven by curiosity but also dreading what I might see inside.
The museum itself is cleverly designed. Being underground and incorporating some of the remaining foundations of the towers, it feels like a tomb, but I suppose that is part of the point. Hundreds, probably more like thousands, of artifacts are grouped together to help create a painstaking, blow-by-blow visceral account of what happened that fateful morning. Everything from photos, videos and articles to audio, shrapnel and the shoes that survivors wore when they escaped the collapsing building is featured.
The main exhibition is unrelenting in practically every way imaginable - in gravity, in detail and in tragedy. Even if the curators had only half the material, the museum would still be effective because of its location at Ground Zero; multimedia displays aside, its spatial proximity to the actual event is on par with that of Auschwitz. In other words, simply being there changes you.
Arguments against monuments like these generally follow several flows of logic, one being that generating empathy is not enough; that said monuments are politically motivated and thus manipulative; that the coagulation of a collective tragedy commodifies personal experience. For me, the most poignant part of the exhibit was a voicemail from a passenger on one of the planes that hit the towers to his wife. A transcript had been printed on the wall, but one could also listen to an audio clip of the actual message. I did, and felt dirty afterward, like I had violated something sacrosanct between two people who had loved each other. Of course, it was the widow's choice to donate her late husband's last message to the museum, but I still wonder why she didn't just keep it for herself.
I think it comes down to why people visit sites like these. Peculiar souls that are simply drawn to the morbid and the macabre contribute to commoditization like 4chan users to a nude photo leak; they just add white noise rather than substance to what should be an intellectual dialogue. Live and learn, learn and live, and hope that history doesn't repeat itself.