Considering the 9/11 Memorial Museum: One visit, three ways

Considering the 9/11 Memorial Museum: One visit, three ways

The main underground hall of the National September 11 Museum. (Wikimedia commons; Photographer Fletcher6)

(some advice I gave my students before our visit last week, updated after the visit)

When you visit the museum—when you visit any museum—try to examine it in three different ways, to look at it through three different lenses. First, consider it as a member of the general public. Next, look at it with a critical eye, trained by your reading, museum experience, and theoretical concerns. And finally, think about it as an employee of the institution might: what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be fixed?

1. First, consider the museum as a member of the general public might. Remember: you are not the “general public,” and so you need to make a conscious effort to shift your perspective. Most of the audience has a different background, different interests, and is there for different purposes than you are. And remember that the public is diverse in many ways; consider that diversity as you think about the public in the space.

The best way to see the museum through visitors’ eyes is to watch visitors in the space, and talk with them. 

  • What do they look at?
  • How do they react?
  • What sections of the museum do they avoid, what are they attracted to?
  • What do they read?
  • Do they interact with each other? Do they seem to be swept up in the flow of the narrative?
  • To what extent are they observers, to what extent active participants in their visit?

2. Next, analyze the museum as an academic reviewer might.  How does it work on an ideological level? Use the critical skills you’ve developed in classwork and reading to think of the museum as a cultural, statement. What are its politics?

As a critical observer, these are some of the things to look at:

  • What artifacts (and sounds and video) are displayed, and how are they used? Are they witness objects, evidence, context, or backdrop? Are they there to prove something, to make a point, or to make you feel a certain way? What are the ethical issues of displaying artifacts here?
  • Think about scale – what’s gained, what’s lost by the size of the space?
  • How are things organized in different areas? Chronologically, thematically, or other? Why?
  • Look closely at the details—the way words are used, cases put together, juxtapositions created. Try to see these separately from the overall impression they make. What exhibit techniques are used, where?

Some things to reflect on:

  • What’s not here that might be? What is made visible, what is made invisible? What is foregrounded, what needs to be sought out? What is left out altogether?
  • How does the museum think about the public? What categories does it use, explicitly or implicitly?
  • What communities are privileged? What voices are silenced?
  • Consider the balance of past, present, and future
  • Consider the balance of museum, memorial, monument. Are these separate? How do they interact?
  • In what ways does the museum use emotional appeals? How does it balance affect and discourse? Try to separate out your emotional and intellectual responses to the material and presentation, and reflect on the ways these two interact.

3.  FInally, think of the museum as an employee might. What’s working, what’s not?? Consider both a practical level (areas too crowded, areas ignored) and on a teaching level (are visitors getting out of the visit what you want them to?). Think about the museum as a tool: How effective is is? How can you determine that more precisely? And how could it be changed to be more effective? What needs to be changed, and what are the practicalities and politics, both internal and external, that it might take to make those changes.


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