Via the AP and the Washington Post, Amy Westfeldt has penned an interesting article about efforts to preserve historical artifacts from the World Trade Center. Wreckage from the buildings, artifacts from the stores and offices housed there, and reminders of the people who worked and died there are all being stored in a giant hanger at JFK airport. This collection is meant in large part to preserve objects for later display at a World Trade Center memorial and at museums around the world.
Memorializing is tricky. Memorials try to fix in place a particular understanding, a certain viewpoint about the events they memorialize. But the meaning of any historical event changes across time, and so too do the memorials to those events. Memorials to Confederate war heroes, for example, are viewed quite differently now than they were when they were erected, even by those who think well of the Confederate cause. We can never know how the future will view the past, or how it will view us. Bart Voorsanger, who directed the process of collecting these artifacts, asks the right question, but it is a difficult one:
"I wasn't interested in our particular generation. They've already seen it," said Voorsanger. "If your grandchildren came to visit, would it mean anything to them?"Yes, it certainly will, but what? Depending on its size and design, any World Trade Center memorial might simply mean a nice place to sit and escape the city bustle. Designed differently, it might mean “wow, this is a big space,” in the way the cathedrals of Europe do to many visitors.
This might seem offensive to us, but the reality is that generations who did not live through those moments will never experience a World Trade Center memorial the way we do, anymore than I feel the way about a World War I memorial the way a surviving veteran might. Alice Greenwald, the director of the planned World Trade Center Memorial Museum, notes in the AP article that what objects are used in the memorial will depend on what story the memorial is designed to tell. There is already a great deal of struggle over that issue, but no matter what vision wins out, the long-term meaning of a memorial is anyone’s guess. The builders of the Lincoln Memorial had no idea it would become an iconic background with a million different meanings in countless movies and TV shows, and we don’t know what the future will think of the World Trade Center memorial until we get there.