Volume 18 • Issue 46 | March 31 - April 6, 2006

Talking Point

Artifacts, not abstract art, needed at the memorial

By Michael Burke

Many have claimed that a handful of obstructionists, who are — as one commentator said recently — out of touch with reality, have blocked the redevelopment of ground zero to push their private agenda upon everyone else and make them pay for it.

It’s all true; it just isn’t the people who you might think it is.

The 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site, as designed, represents only the interests and values of a handful: the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation board and their chosen few, who are out of touch with what America expects, wants and needs at the memorial. The families they listen to are a privileged few — less than 10 who either got in their faces early and screamed the loudest or simply had the best connections.

The famous “fliers of the missing,” created and posted by the families, were embraced by New York, then America as the first, great memorials to 9/11. Collections were made by the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Historical Society. Exhibitions traveled the country. In April 2003, the board of the L.M.D.C. unanimously ruled the fliers’ basic elements as inappropriate for the permanent memorial to 9/11.

The “democratic process” that led to the “Memorial Plaza” consisted of a handful of well-connected government appointees who all think alike, who selected 13 people who represent the values of high culture and intellectualism and none of America’s; none of what the terrorists attacked that morning. These few, though they define their job as “commemorating the countless individual and accumulated memories of countless individuals and communities” included nothing of what America had already made clear, in 1,000 different ways, what they expect to find at the site and how they expect them to be expressed. They replaced that with the moral ambiguity that contemporary, abstract minimalist art so neatly represents. Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times praised “Reflecting Absence” as “narcissistic,” “stoic” (that is, dispassionate) and for leaving meaning – truth – to the eye of the beholder.

L.M.D.C. leaders have no plan to bring artifacts to the plaza. In a letter L.M.D.C. president Stefan Pryor sent to the Families Advisory Council a few weeks ago, he said “they are investigating the possibility of finding a site somewhere on the memorial plaza” for “The Sphere,” the sculpture that used to be on the plaza. And they speak of possibly returning pieces of the Twin Towers’ façade. In the first WTC Memorial Foundation newsletter, dated March, 2006, they describe the memorial and its thousands of feet of waterfalls and trees but there is no mention of the artifacts or remnants. In fact, there is nothing that speaks directly to 9/11. We’re going on five years; what’s the debate and whose arguing against it? Actually, here’s the question: Why doesn’t the “Memorial Plaza” recognize the 9/11 attacks?

Show some humility; restore the iconic remnants and artifacts of 9/11 and the W.T.C. to their rightful place at the W.T.C. site. They express the truth of 9/11 far better than anything we can come up with. Put the 9/11 museum in an appropriate and handsome building on the “WTC Memorial Plaza” – not beneath it. The “International Freedom Center” – which would have hailed the sacrifice and heroism of Tibetan monks and Sudanese dissidents – would have been above ground. How does that make sense?

Put the story of the recovery and salvage of ground zero in ground zero, where that story took place.

Include an American flag. That’s whom they attacked. Include some expression of the salvation or deliverance of the souls of those brutally murdered. At least recognize that they had souls and their lives can be expressed by more than voids and absence. 

Get crazy. Make the memorial meaningful to the people who are paying for it. And forget the Vietnam Memorial as a model. No battles of Vietnam were fought on the Washington mall, no casualties died there. The W.T.C. site was the literal place of the 9/11 attacks. Give the visitors to the site what they come for: 9/11, not an “abstract wonderland in which to wonder,” as New York magazine wrote.

Do that and Downtown will take the cash home in wheelbarrows.

The basic framework of the memorial design can proceed. Put in the trees and waterfalls. The concept of gardens and historical artifacts works pretty well at the Peace Dome in Hiroshima. And a major part of the poignancy of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor comes from the beauty of the surroundings. Add that; and build around it. “Ground Zero” is sacred ground. That does not preclude rebuilding; it does demand that we recognize and honor and respect what literally happened there and what we all witnessed, either first hand or as it was broadcast into our homes. And we must respect what it means for future generations. Let the city come alive around 9/11; but let us have the courage and wisdom not to ignore or bury it.

Michael Burke, who served on the Advisory Committee to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial Center, is the brother of Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., Engine 21 – a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.


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