Atrocity Exhibition

By Benjamin AnastasJuly 24, 2014

Atrocity Exhibition

IN THE WINTER of 1945 Czeslaw Milosz and his wife Janka arrived in New York harbor onboard a British ocean liner, a “small half-cargo ship” as he later described it in A Year of the Hunter. Milosz had been posted abroad, in Washington, DC, as the Second Secretary at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland — an almost absurd gift of fortune with so much of Europe still digging out from the rubble of war. The Paris of Milosz’s student years and first notoriety as a poet had been humiliated by years of Nazi occupation. Poland — where Milosz had witnessed the first roundups of Jews bound for Auschwitz, lived in fear of Russian and German atrocity alike, survived the mass slaughter that followed the Warsaw Uprising — was pulverized. To sail from the ashes of modern Europe to the bustle of postwar Manhattan felt less like crossing an ocean than it did taking some mythological transit to unreal shores. Milosz writes:

From the moment Janka and I disembarked […] on the shore of the Hudson River, it all seemed like the highest outrage. The gigantic city itself was an outrage because it stood there as if nothing had happened — it had not received a single notch from a bomb — and the people in the streets of Manhattan were free from what flowed in me like molten lead.

I thought of Milosz gazing at the unruined canyons of lower Manhattan from his ship in the harbor when I joined the morning commuters getting off the A train at Fulton Street and followed the signage to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero. This was my first visit to the museum since it opened in May. I’d been feeling queasy about it ever since the website Gothamist posted photos of some of the items for sale in the gift shop, including a ceramic cheese plate shaped like the United States and decorated with three hearts: one for the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, another for the attack on the Pentagon, and a third for United Flight 93, the airplane said to be heading for the US Capitol when a revolt by passengers and crew led the hijackers at the controls to bring it down outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (The cheese plate was quickly pulled from the shelves, though an array of other decorative ceramics are still available, including snack plates featuring colorful portraits of the 9/11 rescue dogs by artist Ron Burns.)

While the museum’s gift shop was busy inflaming all the usual actors in the outrage industry, especially News Corp’s local house organ, the New York Post, the much greater outrage, to my mind, had already taken up residence in the city’s skyline. I’d been driving past the building site on the West Side Highway every week for a couple of years; craning my neck at stoplights and whenever I hit traffic. Like many New Yorkers, I’d watched with a sense of involuntary dread, surely a product of having seen the Twin Towers fall that morning, as One World Trade Center’s steel innards climbed higher and higher in the sky, only to transform one day, as if from a chrysalis, into a skyscraper so bland and prefabricated that it looked like a giant air freshener with an inverted Tilt-A-Whirl stuck on top.

A monolith dressed in glass flaps is still a monolith — One Air Freshener, as I called it, was the most inconsequential building I had ever seen. Maybe its gaudy steel crown was the problem, a transparent cheat to reach the 1,776-foot mark from Daniel Libeskind’s original symbol-heavy design. (Adam Gopnik had a much more positive reaction to the tower in The New Yorker, referring to it, breezily, as a “big, cheerful building” and comparing the appendage on top to “the aerie of a villain in a James Bond movie.” It’s worth noting that 1WTC will very shortly be the home of Gopnik’s employer, Condé Nast.) Maybe it was the series of slenderizing triangles that interlocked to form the tower’s sides, or the mirrored skin that made the building seem to want to vanish in the sky. It was hard not to pass the site without remembering the smell that hung over the city for weeks after the towers collapsed (William Langewiesche, in his landmark book American Ground, called it “the sweet smell of the ruins”), the demoralizing way it would vanish in certain breezes only to return when the wind shifted — a reminder of the incineration of two airplanes, two towers, and an as-yet-undetermined number of people. Consider the irony of a monumental air-freshening device, with a grid etched across the top for emitting scents like “Hawaiian Breeze” or “Vanilla,” rising in roughly the same spot.

Maybe Milosz had been right and these were unreal shores after all.


Before I met up with my tour group on the museum’s concourse lobby, one level down from the soaring entrance hall, I took a pass through the 9/11 memorial plaza outside designed by architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker. The memorial grounds have been open to the public since September 12, 2011, and driving by I had often seen the crowds of visitors wandering the rows of white oaks or clustered in little groups along the periphery of the fountains (“reflecting pools,” according to the memorial’s description) that now marked the footprints of the North and South Towers. The visitors looked like wanderers in a corporate forest, lost among the perfect rows of immature, identical trees and browning patches of unrolled sod. Running late on the day of the tour, expecting the museum to be packed, I only skirted the edge of the North Tower pool on my way to the taped-off entry lanes that funnel into the museum’s security apparatus. The fountain is a huge depression in the plaza, a perfect square roughly an acre in size and plunging 30 feet deep. As other critics of the museum and memorial have noted, the scale of the pools and the rush of the water (“30-foot waterfalls cascade down all sides,” the fact sheet reads) overwhelm the impulse to “reflect.” (It’s like going to Niagara Falls to mourn — if Niagara Falls had been designed by a maker of upscale bathroom fixtures.) There is no connection, except by proximity, between the highly ordered falls and the names of the victims etched into bronze parapets and grouped by number along their four sides. Since that morning I have been back on several occasions; timed myself circling the reflecting pools (about four minutes); let my fingers touch the cold names and even murmured some of them aloud, standing in the chlorinated mist. Mostly, though, I’ve stood watching untold gallons of water rushing onto the footprint floor and draining into a square-shaped “void,” and felt numb.

Inside the museum’s entry hall I submitted, first, to a security check. Alice M. Greenwald, the director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, has spoken of the institution’s mission to provide “an emotionally safe encounter with a difficult history,” but this rings hollow when this “safe encounter” begins by passing through a perfect replica of the airport lanes that the 19 hijackers evaded with such casual efficiency on the morning of September 11, 2001. I wondered, while I emptied my pockets, pulled off my belt, and placed my belongings in a gray tub bound for a baggage scanner, if the associations were deliberate and I was actually participating in the museum’s first exhibit. The “severe clear” of the sky that day is a signature feature of the Memorial Museum’s graphics scheme — signs for the site in the Fulton Street subway station taunt with a blue “11” clearly meant to evoke the Twin Towers — so wouldn’t the curators be aware of the power of those ubiquitous gray tubs and the ritual of sending them down the conveyer belt and into the scanner’s open mouth? Passing through the gate of the metal detector I left my body for a moment, only to return when the attendant spoke up.

“Arms out,” she said brusquely.

I lifted my arms. I was starting to sweat. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

This was state-of-the-art. To make you enter through an elaborately staged version of the same soul-killing security checks that have become a way of life since 9/11 was to leave the realm of official memory and historical preservation and to deal instead in the deepest recesses of the human psyche. The blue in the logo, the airport shakedown, the descent into darkness that I had read about in early reviews — it was something out of the Warhol-inspired dreamscapes of J. G. Ballard. Here was a museum dedicated to reconstructing an atrocity that two billion people around the world had witnessed, at the site where it had happened, but the exhibition space they cared about most was inside your head, kicked off with a reenactment of procedures in Boston, Washington, DC, and Newark that had failed to stop the hijackers in the first place. There is a word for this kind of manipulation: diabolical. It had to be intentional. And I began to wonder: was the museum founded to “bear solemn witness” to the single deadliest foreign attack on US soil — the event that gave us momentary kinship with the rest of the world — a $700 million mindfuck?

“You’re done.”

I stood blinking. In the other lanes, visitors were reuniting with their belts, wallets, loose change, and smartphones.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re done,” the guard said, a little louder this time. Her meaning was clear. The line was backing up behind me. I lowered my arms and went off to find my tub.                                                        



I speak to you, my son
after years of silence. Verona is no more.
I crumbled its brick dust in my fingers. This is what remains
Of the great love of native cities.

From “Farewell,” by Czeslaw Milosz, written in Krakow in 1945.
Translated by Renata Gorczynski.

I met up with my tour group in a V-shaped alcove outside the exhibitions. They were a cheery bunch, dressed in the Bermuda shorts, oversized T-shirts, and arch-supported sneakers of summer tourists with a full itinerary. They came from the United States (Tennessee, Pennsylvania) and from abroad (New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom). I counted at least two families with children, ranging from teenaged, looking awed or bored, to a few as young as four or five. It didn’t surprise me that I was the only New Yorker in attendance that morning, given the strong reactions I’d been having to the triggers everywhere — the “11” on the signage in particular was difficult to reconcile. That blue — the blue of the horizon that day and on the days that followed the attacks — revived the dread that had returned with each new morning; the rumors that flew around the city (I remember one about a skating rink in Staten Island that was supposed to have been piled high with bodies); the foreboding emptiness of the sky without any air traffic.

“History Remembered” is one of the marketing slogans that the Memorial Museum has been using on its launch, and this gets to the heart of the strange and unsettling nature of the enterprise: what if the blue sky and the columns of smoke and the dot-matrix printouts that settled softly into the backyards of Brooklyn have never really left you, not really — their power is undiminished — though you hardly ever dwell on your memories of 9/11 anymore, except when it spontaneously comes up with someone else who was there and saw the towers fall? “History Reminded” is more like it. Just about anyone who was alive, awake, and sentient watched those events unfurl in real time and doesn’t need any design-happy memory aids to trigger recall.

Brock, our gifted tour guide (I have changed his name), cleared up the mystery of the museum for me. With his perfect enunciation and d’Artagnan beard, I figured Brock was an underemployed actor. I liked him. His red striped shirt was crisply pressed, and his pleated khakis had a certain drape that made it easy to picture him at home with an open craft beer, tinkering with the spec script he’d written for an episode of Game of Thrones. Brock recited his spiel into a headset microphone while he led us through the museum’s system of ramps and warrens, making the descent from the concourse lobby, sheathed in black like the chamber of a cave, to the original foundation slabs of the Twin Towers — at least what’s left of them — seven stories underground. We listened using headsets of our own, prone, as a group, to distraction, to wandering through the artifacts on display (the impact steel from the North Tower, twisted by the impact of Flight 11 when it hit; a broken piece of the Pentagon limestone; a red bandana owned by Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader who stayed behind in the South Tower to evacuate the injured and didn’t survive), and getting on Brock’s nerves a little when he tried to round us up and move on.

“Let’s all stick together,” he’d insist, hands on hips. “This is a painful, powerful story we’re easing into. If you can hear my voice, gather around …”

Think of the 9/11 Museum as an ancient pagan temple designed by blue-chip architecture firms and animated by 21st-century display technology. Aboveground, an angular glass pavilion from the Norwegian team Snøhetta (“a glass box set at a sharp, dizzy tilt, like a tipping building or a listing ship,” the critic Holland Cotter wrote in the Times), flooding the upper levels with sunlight and feeling like a hipper, more sustainable version of Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral. Two steel tridents, over 80 feet high, from the perimeter of the North Tower, loom over the atrium inside like giant totems (or crosses) salvaged by a postindustrial religious sect. The temple rites begin when you take an escalator down and enter into the spiraling cave that carries you through the first initiation rooms and deposits you below into 110,000 square feet of gallery space — anchored by an exposed section of the slurry wall in Foundation Hall. This wall is the monumental feat of civic engineering that kept the Hudson River from filling the foundation pit (where 1.8 million tons of rubble lay smoking after the towers collapsed) and flooding the city’s subway system. In Brock’s script this piece of slurry wall is “a solemn sentinel of our fortitude,” but looking up from the foundation floor at the mass of cement with its capped steel anchors is awe-inspiring enough without the wordy abstractions.

In Memorial Hall, adjacent to the South Tower footprint, an installation by the Brooklyn artist Spencer Finch picks up the “severe clear” theme and runs with it, covering a wall with 2,983 hand-painted pieces of Italian paper, one for each of the victims of 9/11 as well as those of the 1993 WTC bombing. (The attacks are conflated throughout, a concession, no doubt, to the ’93 victims and their families. Still, the blurring is awkward.) There is a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid cast in 9/11 steel — “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” — and it bridges well to In Memoriam, the permanent exhibit that takes up much of the South Tower space. Behind the Spencer Finch installation is a repository for unidentified remains run by the Office of theChief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. This is a macabre business for a museum that hopes to draw 2.5 million visitors a year. (There was light leaking out from underneath a steel door where the remains are stored on one of my visits and I hurried off with my head down.) Storing the remains on site only enhances the confusion about what the 9/11 Museumis meant to do and for whom: Is it to honor survivors and victims and their families, who have their own admissions lines and enter free of charge? Is it an archive for future generations to remember 9/11? A public edutainment about the worst foreign attack on US soil in history and the immediate response? And if the 9/11 Museum is edutainment — the exhibits’ impeccable presentation seems to suggest that it is — why is it filled with so many genuine horrors, like the alcove dedicated to the 9/11 “jumpers,” those haunting souls who chose to leap from the upper floors of the towers rather than being burned alive?

As I’ve already said, though, Brock gave up the game just as our tour got underway. It was outside the cave mouth where the exhibitions started, a dark corridor where clipped fragments of 9/11 oral histories played (“When I heard it over the radio,” “the Twin Towers,” “the smoke rolling in,” etc.) while the words as well as images from 9/11 were projected onto screens shaped like pillars, including photographs of stunned and horrified people watching it all unfurl. We gathered by a large-format photograph of lower Manhattan taken from the Brooklyn waterfront that morning, 16 minutes before the first plane sliced into the North Tower. The city was waking up. There was a ferry crawling down the East River and about to pass underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The Twin Towers, still intact, stood at a jaunty angle to meet the day, lording themselves over everything else. Brock pointed out the antenna on the North Tower, the “severe clear” of the sky.

“This picture,” Brock said to the group, his voice trembling a little, or so I thought I detected on my headset, “is a portrait of our innocence on that morning. The innocence that was taken from us by the terrorists.”

It took a while for the substance of Brock’s words to sink in. This was the answer I’d been looking for — it had been right there under my nose — the reason why we have the 9/11 Museum. In Milosz’s essay “Tiger” he writes about what he loved when he came to America in 1945 — melting into the crowds of New York; the neat white houses in the suburbs with their green lawns; the woods and wildlife of New England — and the elements of the national character that were so hard for a European exile to grasp. It was American innocence that Milosz found so foreign, the “loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.”

The 9/11 Museum, quintessentially American, is the first of its kind: a memorial that seeks to wipe away an experience rather than preserve it, and it performs this dark rite by plunging you back into the moment when it was all still inconceivable. Before planes flew into towers and the nerve center of American military might; before ordinary citizens put on a uniform, or rode an elevator to work, or boarded airplanes and left one last voicemail message at home, and vanished forever. The museum means to strip you of your sense of history and to slip you right back into the bathwater of your innocence. It is the mindfuck that wants to return your virginity intact, to return you, again and again, to the shock of that blue morning, when you knew what you were seeing but you couldn’t believe your eyes.


Benjamin Anastas teaches literature and writing at Bennington College and is also on the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels An Underachiever’s Diary, recently re-released in paperback by the Dial Press, and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (FSG), which was a The New York Times notable book. His memoir Too Good to Be True was published in October of 2012 by New Harvest/HMH. Other work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, and The Best American Essays 2012. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College and is also on the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars.


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