9/11: 20 years later

The 9/11 Museum and Its Discontents

A new documentary goes inside the battles that have riven the institution.

Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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Since it first opened seven years ago, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum has struggled to attract visitors from the tristate area. This is not to say that it’s been unpopular. The museum claimed to have drawn more than 10 million visitors in its first three years of operations, and averaged more than 3 million per year prior to the pandemic, which forced steep budget and staff cuts. Thanks to its controversial mandatory entry fee for adults, which started at $24 and has risen to $26, it has brought in nearly half a billion dollars in ticket sales alone from 2014 to 2019.

Look up the top tourist attractions in New York City on a site like TripAdvisor, and you’ll find the 9/11 Museum and the adjacent Memorial Plaza (which is free, and tastefully done) at the top of the list, beating out the Met, Central Park, and the Empire State Building. If you buy a New York Pass for a three-day visit, the museum will take up a big chunk of your itinerary. New Yorkers might prefer to be associated with world-class art, fine dining, fashion, or architecture, but for millions of tourists, a principal attraction is the chance to relive the single worst day in the city’s history.

From well before it opened, the museum has drawn criticism. Survivors of the attacks and relatives of victims, communities that are far from monolithic, have expressed anger over everything from the existence of a gift shop to the inclusion of photographs identifying the 19 hijackers. Arab and Muslim groups have formally complained that the museum does little to distinguish Al Qaeda from the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. In a scathing 2014 review, Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott accused the museum of “inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.”

Now a newly released documentary, The Outsider, expands upon Kennicott’s criticism by chronicling the debates among the museum staff about the very purpose of the project and ultimately takes the side of the titular outsider, a struggling novelist and classic New York eccentric named Michael Shulan, who served as the museum’s vaguely defined “creative director” prior to its opening.

In the immediate wake of the attacks, Shulan decided to turn his Soho storefront into a crowdsourced gallery for photographs capturing the day’s horrors, and quickly amassed what might be the largest single collection of 9/11 imagery, dubbed “Here Is New York.” It was on the basis of this collection that Shulan was invited to join a staff of more seasoned museum professionals that also included Alice Greenwald, the museum’s current chief executive, who previously worked at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, what Shulan did for 9/11 photos, a married couple was simultaneously doing for 9/11 video footage. In 2001, Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder were running Broadcast News Networks, a company they co-founded that made documentary features for TV news. On the day of the attacks, Rosenbaum directed their employees to journey downtown from their office on 28th Street and to “point their cameras in the opposite direction” from what most camera crews were filming — that is, away from the burning Twin Towers and toward the faces of bystanders reacting to an apocalyptic scene. “If you’re a filmmaker, and you think the world’s ending, which we did, you make a film,” Rosenbaum told me.

In the weeks that followed, Rosenbaum and Yoder solicited more than 500 hours of 9/11 footage from ordinary New Yorkers, which became the basis for 7 Days in September, a critically acclaimed 2002 documentary. A few years later, they donated their archive to the 9/11 Museum in exchange for access to its planning process. Thus, between 2008 and the 2014 grand opening, they were able to film key staffers, including Shulan, deliberating and debating over every aspect of the eventual museum.

Rosenbaum and Yoder say they didn’t set out to document the planning of the museum with any particular political agenda, beyond a general sense that what they captured might turn out to be significant to future generations. It was only in hindsight that they identified Shulan, one of five museum staffers who signed a release agreeing to be filmed, as a potential protagonist for a film — and they only informed him of that a month before the release earlier this month, after the film’s title and poster had been decided on, so that neither he nor any of their other subjects would have the opportunity to exercise editorial control.

Michael Shulan. Photo: Abramorama

Shulan did not agree to be interviewed for this article, or for any other press coverage of The Outsider. (In July, he told the New York Times, “Twenty years marks a turning point where one begins to look at things with a certain kind of hindsight. … Not asking questions just leads to further crises.”) In the film, he can frequently be seen picking fights with the other staffers over what might seem like trivial details — for instance, whether to include the famous Iwo Jima-esque photograph of firefighters raising an American flag over Ground Zero, which Shulan finds kitschy (he is overruled). He comes off as a bit obnoxious, a constant irritant among a group of professionals striving for consensus on an inherently fraught historical event. By the final months before the museum’s opening, it is clear he has been marginalized. (In an email, a museum official stressed that Shulan was not fired but acknowledged that his contract was not renewed after May 2014, four months before the opening.)

But his central argument, which the filmmakers share, is a serious one: that the purpose of a museum should be for raising questions, provoking dialogue, fostering independent scholarship and research, and allowing for a range of interpretations. All of this, The Outsider charges, the 9/11 Museum fails to do.

Museum officials exercised their right to review the film prior to its release and submitted a list of dozens of requested edits, ranging from spelling errors to more substantive criticisms of taste and appropriateness surrounding particular scenes and remarks — most of which the filmmakers ignored. There is clearly no love lost between the filmmakers and the museum staff. Lee Cochran, a spokeswoman for the museum, told me in a statement: “The film looks at the Museum through a very specific ideological lens which we do not share. At a moment when so many institutions in the U.S. are subject to ideological and partisan divisions, the Memorial & Museum must remain a sacred space that seeks to educate and unify. We made clear to the filmmakers that we were disappointed by many of their decisions, which we think are disrespectful towards victims and their families.”

I didn’t find The Outsider disrespectful to the victims of 9/11, and it’s unquestionably a valuable document of what was always going to be a controversial process. But do the filmmakers’ criticisms of the museum — that it avoids tough questions about U.S. foreign policy both before and after the attacks, in favor of a narrow and unreflective account aimed primarily at tourists — have merit?

I am not unsympathetic to the challenge Greenwald and her team faced in trying to balance competing pressures from left and right, from different factions among victims’ families, from the interests of real-estate developers and the city’s financial elite (including former mayor Mike Bloomberg, a major funder), and from the perceived needs of both locals and tourists. As much as the memory of 9/11 has been exploited and abused, it was an actual, horrible thing that happened to the two cities I know best, New York and Washington; I was 17 at the time, and remember it all too well. With that in mind, last week I paid my $26 entry fee, and for the first time descended an escalator into the underground abyss where all the exhibits are contained, amid what were once the foundations of the World Trade Center complex.

One of the first things I registered was the introductory text succinctly laying out what happened on 9/11: After establishing that nearly 3,000 people were killed when members of Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes, the text notes, “Approximately two billion people, almost one third of the world’s population, are estimated to have witnessed these horrific events directly or via television, radio and Internet broadcasts that day.” This last bit stands out, because it acknowledges something uncomfortable: that a central aspect of 9/11 was spectacle. The terrorists didn’t simply kill a lot of innocent people, they did so in a way that was mesmerizing on camera. The Onion captured this two weeks after the attacks with the memorable headline “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” — a recognition that the destruction of the Twin Towers was undeniably cinematic, and perhaps the single most inescapable mediated event the world has yet witnessed. Shulan describes it as having “a terrible beauty,” in a scene from The Outsider that the filmmakers say the museum wanted cut.

The main floor of the museum includes artifacts of destruction — twisted steel columns, demolished fire trucks and police cars, the remains of a TV antenna — and some interesting miscellany on the towers, which were architecturally controversial at the time of their construction in the early 1970s but soon became iconic. A section dedicated to the faces of all of the victims of the attacks, including six people killed during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is genuinely moving and allows for quiet contemplation at one’s own pace. I was able, for instance, to look up the parent of someone I used to know, to study their face, and to reflect on the arbitrary reasons why they found themselves on one of the flights that morning. It’s clear why this particular room needs to exist, and for whom.

I didn’t really start to get unnerved until I entered the historical overview section, a linear journey through 9/11 and its aftermath. Minute by minute, visitors are effectively re-traumatized as we are taken through the events of the day and how they were experienced in real time. There are tissue boxes discreetly placed in some corners, and while I am not easily moved to tears in general, the recordings of passengers on United 93 leaving final messages for their loved ones were more than I could bear. The explanatory text throughout this section is anodyne, but presenting a day of mass destruction and terror — of heroic cops and firefighters and stoic leadership from the likes of Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani — is not a neutral act; it cannot help but replicate the jingoism that was so pervasive after 9/11 for those of us old enough to remember it. For those who aren’t old enough, the museum is a plausible reconstruction of the day itself — but this raises the question of whether 9/11 is something everyone necessarily needs to experience.

Then, before one has had time to process all this grief, there’s a filmstrip explaining the origins of Al Qaeda, and this is where things get really slippery. It’s a safe assumption that most of the museum’s guests are not familiar with the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. If the museum is going to try to explain that topic at all, it has a responsibility to do so carefully. Instead, what a visitor still reeling from the mass murder of American civilians is likely to take away from this section is that Al Qaeda in no way owes its existence to anything the CIA might have done during the 1979–1989 Soviet-Afghan war. The United States, we learn, simply backed the brave mujahideen freedom fighters of Afghanistan, and Arab jihadists like Osama bin Laden who joined that struggle did so entirely with their own resources and with no cooperation or support from Pakistan’s intelligence services, through which the U.S. funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the mujahideen. That the U.S. might be complicit in other questionable policies in the Muslim world, like its close and still-ongoing security cooperation with all of the autocratic regimes from which the 9/11 hijackers hailed, is totally unacknowledged.

So, for that matter, is any distinction between the Islamic religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide and the “Islamist” ideology of Al Qaeda. Cochran, the museum spokesperson, sent me links to a 2017 panel the museum hosted on Muslim American identity in the wake of the attacks and to a high-school lesson plan on the same topic on the museum’s website, but there’s nothing obvious in the museum itself that would convey to a casual visitor that Islam writ large is not to blame for 9/11, or that Muslim Americans have faced hate crimes, discrimination, surveillance, entrapment, torture, and even state-sanctioned murder in the 20 years since.

By the time you emerge from the history section, you’ve seen plenty of American flags, missing persons posters, and agonizing contemporaneous media clips, but next to nothing on the long-term and highly contested legacy of the attacks. There’s footage of a tearful Jon Stewart in his first Daily Show appearance after 9/11, but nothing about his subsequent efforts to shame Congress into providing health care for first responders.

The best the museum can manage in terms of acknowledging that some aspects of the post-9/11 era remain controversial is a tiny alcove that asks the question: “How can America protect its citizens from terrorism?” It responds with some tepid both-sides-ing, with the pro-war, pro-security side clearly prioritized. There’s a photo of George W. Bush looking resolute as he signs the Patriot Act, and next to it is a perfunctory shot of a few protesters with “dissent is patriotic” signs. (Caption: “The Patriot Act broadly expanded the federal government’s ability to conduct surveillance and share intelligence. Many thought such actions might have deterred the 9/11 attacks. Others protested that the law curtailed civil liberties.”)

There are pictures of U.S. forces in Iraq, alongside displays of their medals, and if you look lower down, you might glimpse a flyer for a rally against the Iraq War or a picture of prisoners in Guantanamo. (Caption: “The status and treatment of suspected terrorists and others transferred to Guantanamo Bay stimulated debate in the United States and abroad about detention and interrogation practices.”) The marginalization of critical or antiwar perspectives is especially glaring, considering that the U.S. is marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 by accepting total defeat in Afghanistan, a tacit admission by the Biden administration that countless lives and trillions of dollars have been squandered over errors made in the wake of the attacks.

A separate, temporary exhibit, produced with extensive cooperation from the Obama administration officials and with funding from Palantir and Lockheed Martin, depicts the hunt for bin Laden, the war on terror’s finest hour and the only post-9/11 military operation covered in any detail. This is the story of 9/11 a visitor is left with: They attacked us for no good reason, we mourned, we rallied, and eventually we got the bastards.

The infamous gift shop, which mostly sells NYPD and FDNY swag to support the museum’s operations, also offers some plush Ground Zero rescue dogs so young children can have a cute souvenir of 9/11. As I stared at those, it hit me that the museum I had just toured features a permanent exhibit on these dogs — “The Working Dogs of 9/11” — which is significantly more space than it devotes to the entire Muslim world.

It’s not easy for a museum to do justice to a major historical tragedy, but it’s also not impossible. The widely acclaimed Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington in 2016, also received corporate funding and endured its share of criticism, and it’s not as though African American history is an uncontroversial topic. All the same, visitors to that museum are almost always impressed at the breadth and depth of scholarship it draws upon, its unflinching depictions of centuries of injustice, and its ability to provoke curiosity in visitors of all backgrounds. It has a perspective, and at the same time it’s capable of wrestling with ambiguity. For instance, it respects visitors enough to situate Bill Cosby as a major figure in the history of Black representation on television, while simultaneously acknowledging the sexual-assault allegations against him.

As best as I can tell, this is the kind of museum Shulan, Rosenbaum, and Yoder were hoping to see at Ground Zero. “At its core, the museum is wrong,” Rosenbaum told me following my visit. “It teaches you nothing. It doesn’t ask provocative, thoughtful questions about America and its role in the world. It takes no responsibility. And as a result, it is a tourist attraction.” Yoder described as “onerous” the museum’s insistence on reviewing and signing off on any scholarly or journalistic research done using its archival materials, including the video archive she and Rosenbaum donated in exchange for permission to film — requirements that the filmmakers argue are fundamentally hostile to independent scholarship. (In an email, Cochran told me that these requirements are in place out of respect for 9/11 survivors and family members who have donated materials they don’t want exploited, but acknowledged that the museum is reevaluating its guidelines after recent complaints from some researchers.)

Imagining a better, more civically healthy 9/11 museum ultimately requires imagining a better, more civically healthy national response to 9/11 than we’ve seen at any point in the past two decades. Cochran told me that the museum “has striven to be above politics and to bring all Americans together in solemn remembrance.” But there is no way to put the memory of 9/11 “above politics.” Everything about 9/11 — from its origins in Cold War proxy battles, to the Bush administration’s failure to heed credible warnings of an attack on American soil, to the Republican Party’s shameless post-9/11 embrace of militarism for partisan advantage and the Democratic Party’s craven acquiescence, to Guantanamo to Iraq to drones to the current fight over Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan — is inherently political. The museum’s position that all of this can be waved away reminds me of nothing so much as Glenn Beck’s “9/12 Project,” a tea party–affiliated effort in 2009 whose premise was that the unity Americans supposedly felt the day after 9/11 could and should be restored.

If there’s a single lesson to be drawn from 9/11, perhaps it’s that enduring a national trauma together is an insufficient basis for unity — that unity can only come from a collective political project rooted in shared core values. In his new book Reign of Terror, which traces a direct line from the 9/11 attacks to the rise of Donald Trump, Spencer Ackerman quotes Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as saying that it’s “impossible to argue” that the war on terror has been worth it. That may not be what most tourists want to be told during a pilgrimage to lower Manhattan, but it might be exactly what they need to hear.

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The 9/11 Museum and Its Discontents