Tuesday, June 07, 2005

World Trade Center Memorial: Correct History at the Wrong Place

According to the Wall Street Journal [subscriber only] (via NRO's Corner):
The World Trade Center Memorial Cultural Complex will be an imposing edifice wedged in the place where the Twin Towers once stood. It will serve as the primary 'gateway' to the underground area where the names of the lost are chiseled into concrete. The organizers of its principal tenant, the International Freedom Center (IFC), have stated that they intend to take us on 'a journey through the history of freedom' -- but do not be fooled into thinking that their idea of freedom is the same as that of those Marines. To the IFC's organizers, it is not only history's triumphs that illuminate, but also its failures. The public will have come to see 9/11 but will be given a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man's inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South, from the Third Reich's Final Solution to the Soviet gulags and beyond. This is a history all should know and learn, but dispensing it over the ashes of Ground Zero is like creating a Museum of Tolerance over the sunken graves of the USS Arizona.

The public will be confused at first, and then feel hoodwinked and betrayed. Where, they will ask, do we go to see the September 11 Memorial? The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation will have erected a building whose only connection to September 11 is a strained, intellectual one. While the IFC is getting 300,000 square feet of space to teach us how to think about liberty, the actual Memorial Center on the opposite corner of the site will get a meager 50,000 square feet to exhibit its 9/11 artifacts, all out of sight and underground. Most of the cherished objects which were salvaged from Ground Zero in those first traumatic months will never return to the site. There is simply no room. But the International Freedom Center will have ample space to present us with exhibits about Chinese dissidents and Chilean refugees. These are important subjects, but for somewhere -- anywhere -- else, not the site of the worst attack on American soil in the history of the republic.
I've banged the drum about viewing historical events and people within the context of their time. Should we also present History within the proper context? I wouldn't expect to go to the Washington Memorial and be faced with a presentation on the Civil War. The WSJ is not saying that the history being presented at the IFC is "bad," only that it shouldn't be presented at this time and this place to a public that expects something entirely different. On one level, I understand that there is a difference between scholarly history and what the general public believes is history. As such, historians regularly "surprise" the public with history that they don't expect. But there is something to this. Perhaps the real problem is that more space at the site is being given to the IFC then to the Memorial itself. In time, I suppose the discerning public will be able to separate the two. Yet, in the more immediate years so close to 9/11, it would seem that the general desire to remember and memorialize would be greater than taking in a history of Freedom. In the long run the latter will probably appeal to the broader audience. So perhaps I've answered my own question. Any thoughts?

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