Sunday I went down to the Smithsonian with my parents. After navigating through a small, colorful protest, we parked by the Department of Agriculture and walked over to the Museum of American History. Our space was near a curious stretch of C Street which is largely empty on the weekends and is mostly occupied by government office buildings that sit like giant file cabinets over entire city blocks. After making our way through the last humid dregs of summer, we arrived at the museum for their temporary exhibit of artifacts related to the attacks of September 11th.
There was already a line to see the exhibit when we go there. It snaked out from the room, past the museum's famous dollhouse, and along the entrance to the exhibit on the American presidency. Since it was a temporary exhibition and did not receive much fanfare, I was surprised at the turnout. Perhaps it was higher because the Washington Monument was closed because the cracks it incurred from the recent earthquake. I could not tell if the crowd was made up mostly of tourists or locals who were interested in remembering the day's carnage.
It was a forty-five minute wait to get inside. To pass the time we had a brochure filled with a few interesting stories but once that was done, there was the inevitable discussion of where we were that day, what we were thinking, and the ways in which the country has changed since then, almost all for the worst. There was little else to do or look at. The walls around us were white and free of any interesting artifacts under glass or captions dripping with information. Someone opened a door reserved for employees and I got a brief behind the scenes glimpse of the museum's inner workings.
Finally, we got to the exhibit itself. The display was a sort of dress rehearsal for future exhibits about 9/11, particularly the museum specially devoted to the day in New York City. Once I went inside, it seemed like I was in a macabre convention. The objects were not protected or covered up in any way. Instead, they were spread out on tables for people to breathe on and photograph, however they could not be touched. But it was the overall design that stood out for me. Above us was a chandelier and dividing the tables of artifacts were large gray curtains with placards attached to them. The signs announced what city they came from. The overall effect was like being at a conference, with booths set up by companies to show off their latest products.
Just like a conference, there were too many people taking pictures. I realized that they were the ones who were holding up the line. Without them, people would have able to go through much quicker. I found it strange that so many people felt the desire to photograph everything on display. The attacks of 9/11 were some of the most visually documented events in human history. Anybody wielding a camera in the room would have seen the images already, playing over and over again or seeing them frozen in magazines, books, and websites. I had never seen any reaction quite like this, people were even taking pictures of pictures that were on display.
Is this how we cope with this fissure in our history and smooth it out? Is this how we try and get back to the shared experience we lost after those attacks? Is this how we pray collectively for the souls of the dead in a secular society? Or is it a way to claim some small slice of victimhood or solidarity with those directly affected by the events? I am not sure, but I do believe it would have been better to let no pictures be taken and let people stand without any barriers or frames between the common objects twisted and dented into relics. If nothing else, it would have gotten the line moving and allowed people easier access to the tables.
For some reason, they had a set up for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Of course, people took pictures of this well, objects that can be seen in any airport. Here though, they were unique, no one was being forced to go through them. Perhaps the crowd photographing the machines and empty uniforms got a real pleasure out of capturing the sets of our security theater as if they were Fonzie's jacket or Archie Bunker's chair. Maybe they were motivated by a fantasy looking out onto the display: here is what the world would be like if 9/11 had not happened, a whole safety apparatus going unused.
The TSA display was strange for other reasons, chief among them I mentioned before: everything being shown could be seen in action across the country. What was special about the artifacts then? They had no story behind them, were owned by nobody famous, and were far from unique. Visitors could even see the ubiquitous gray bins we put our lives into (I wonder if some boom town has popped up since September 11th to supply them). The area did not even need to show us how people used to live by putting the former mundane on display, because this mundane is still a bane of our existence.
The expected reaction to all this was supposed to be sadness. The museum had even set up Kleenex boxes in strategic positions to deal with the rush of sorrows they imagined inducing in the visitors. However, there were some moments of unintentional hilarity. By the exit, a theater had been set up to show a film about people's memories of the event and its aftermath. Former New York City mayor Giuliani was among those interviewed and for the most part he spoke with the usual platitudes. But things went in a bizarre direction when he talked about being unable to really think about the attacks until he was receiving a colonoscopy. I had to stifle a laugh.
Besides being a dress rehearsal for future exhibits about 9/11, it was also a way to prepare for all future museum exhibits, a way to see how artifacts from our current events will be treated and displayed when they eventually become regarded as part of the distant past. The major issue that future museums for our current events will have to tackle is the nature of the artifacts themselves. In an era of mass manufactured items that are otherwise disposable, what will make anything special and worthy enough to be put on display? Walking around the 9/11 exhibit, I mistakenly thought that the Kleenex boxes were part of the attacks when they were actually meant for those passing through.
In previous eras, most things were handmade and crafted individually, giving them a unique character. A Roman vase or Sumerian pot does not have to be directly connected to an important event or person in order to warrant preservation. Even after the start of the industrial era, there was still a certain rarity to the factory made items, since national and global standardization has not yet set in. Items also were more likely to become damaged and when thrown away, lost for good. If they survived and were passed down, they were treasured keepsakes and heirlooms. But our plastic age has changed all that. The objects around us are more or less the same and they endure in the background of our lives much longer. If one wants to see how people lived in the 1970s, a trip to the thrift store or a grandparent's house can often educate just as well as a museum could.
The solution seemed to be laid out in that room inside the Museum of American History. Here were items from everyday life that were given a new significance: the flight attendant button from an airplane, a calculator, a post card, an officer's badge, a squeegee, and a travel brochure. All of them were common enough but because they were damaged by an historical event they became artifacts. In the museum of the future, this wear and tear will become more and more essential. While a Greek marble can be celebrated for being clean and whole, today's objects will have to be broken and dirty. In the absence of bodies, their damages will come to stand in for them and represent a given historical trauma. They will serve to physically remind those in the future how the everyday flow of events was twisted, burned, and broken not only in the September 11th attacks, but in all subsequent wars, coups, famines, and disasters.
We're starting a Dr. John inspired band. - I'm gonna play the bones. I don't think the world is ready.
5 years ago