A Very Strange Time Capsule

Joel Meyerowitz - whose photographs appear in the exhibition "After September 11: Images from Ground Zero" at the Museum of London -- says he took photos of New York in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks because he "wanted to do something useful".

"I had the same wounded feeling as everybody else", he says. He had tried to volunteer, but they turned him away, so he decided to document instead. He was horrified that photographers were being kept away from Ground Zero: "We can't have a blackout on history. What event is not photographed? I was determined to go in and make an archive." His photos -- of workmen taking out the dead, of the remaining North Wall -- are the only visual record of the recovery work at Ground Zero.

After Sept. 11, many New York cultural institutions felt the same urge -- to document and preserve. There is an ongoing attempt to collect all of the memories and material culture related to Sept. 11. From poems left by New Yorkers to aspirins sent for relief workers, from bits of rubble to "Missing" signs and dust masks...Sept. 11 is fast becoming one of the best-documented events in history.

But why are we collecting all this stuff? And what will it tell future historians about us?

Dr Sarah Henry, vice president at the Office of Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, told me in October 2001 that Sept. 11 "becomes an opportunity for a time capsule". By documenting the event and "looking at history from its every angle", there "may be an opportunity for people [in the future] to understand things about social, political and economic history in ways we cannot anticipate now".

A massive time capsule is a good way of describing the current collecting efforts by state and cultural institutions. Almost everybody seems to be collecting something. South Street Seaport Museum is documenting the response of the maritime community to the attacks, collecting oral histories, photographs, videos and other artefacts. The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture (Citylore) has photographed the spontaneous shrines that sprung up in response to the attacks, and is collecting "found" poems. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is collecting prints inspired by Sept. 11.

The New York Historical Society is collecting artists' responses to the attacks, World Trade Centre memorabilia, children's artwork, victim's personal effects, and equipment worn by rescue workers. The Museum of the City of New York has acquired Bellevue Hospital's "Wall of Prayer", a spontaneous bulletin board that sprung up in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, containing images of the lost, prayers and poems -- and it is creating a "Virtual Union Square", collecting electronic submissions of people's artistic or poetic responses to Sept. 11. And the Association of Public Historians of New York State is coordinating members' efforts to document their communities' responses to the attacks.

State agencies are also involved. A group led by New York State Archives and the National Archives is assembling evidence of how governments, hospitals, schools, mental health organisations and religious groups responded to the event. According to state archivist Kathleen Roe, "It's probably the most monumental documentation you can think of".

Columbia University Oral History Project is recording post-Sept. 11 "oral histories". Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, told me that "we have never done anything on this scale. We have done this many interviews before [around 360], but we have never done this many this quickly, or so close to an event". The project will keep in touch with some of the interviewees over time, to see how the event has affected their lives.

Dr Steven Jaffe is curator at the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan, which has collected interviews with some of the people involved in the evacuation of around 300,000 people across the Hudson River by tugboat, yacht and speedboat after the attacks. According to Jaffe, "Everybody has felt a deep personal need to do something in response.... This is how I respond -- I can preserve for posterity, not only documents, but also how people felt about it".

The story of how 300,000 people were evacuated will no doubt be remarkable. Indeed, viewed on their own merits, many of the post-Sept. 11 projects and exhibitions seem fair enough. But collectively, they add up to something rather strange.

It is strange that so many institutions seem to be collecting -- and that they are collecting so much. The New York Historical Society says "there is always an increase in the documentary and creative record in response to...seismic occurrences". This might be true in some cases, but not in others. According to Jane Carmichael, director of collections at London's Imperial War Museum, during the Second World War collecting virtually ceased: "Everything was in short supply -- museums had made it their priority to protect exhibits from bombing. Some of our exhibits were wheeled out to take part. It wasn't until the war was over that the collecting effort began."

When the Imperial War Museum did begin to collect, it didn't just ask for people to send in their submissions. Museums have to make hard choices about what is worth collecting and what isn't. "We are offered a lot of material", says Carmichael, "and we have learned how to say no politely and courteously".

What is also strange is that cultural institutions are documenting people's manufactured responses to the Sept. 11 attacks. A future society looking back on Sept. 11 won't just have physical remains of the attacks, official documents, newspapers, videos, diaries and letters to go on. They will also have personal documents made as an actual response to the attacks.

Historically, this is unusual. Do we have this for Hiroshima or the Blitz? Of course we have letters, diaries, poems and other things that indicate something of what people felt about historic events -- and no doubt historians often wish we had more. But these were things that people wrote or produced for themselves, or for their friends or lovers -- they generally didn't do it for a museum or to put in the street. We don't have this kind of mass production of "responses" to catastrophes of the past.

Today, cultural institutions are actually appealing to people to give their testimonies, or to produce art and write poems. The New York Historical Society has invited New Yorkers to "share their reminiscences of the people and events of 11 September", asking people to "please send your stories, along with your name, phone number, and contact information". The Museum of the City of New York's 'Virtual Union Square' "invites you to contribute images of your drawings, sculptures, posters, paintings, memorials, signs, poems or other creations made in response to the events of Sept. 11".

What a society chooses to collect can tell you a lot about it. I often see an object in a museum and think, "Why did they collect that?". In London's Victoria and Albert Museum there are two rooms full of plaster casts of buildings and monuments from all over Europe, largely made and collected in the late nineteenth century. Those two rooms are like a snapshot of the Victorian mindset: a people who wanted to possess the finest in the world, and to learn from it.

In the early twenty-first century, cultural institutions no longer have the conviction of their Victorian forebears. Museums have become less certain about their role as collectors, studiers and presenters of artefacts, and are refocusing themselves around their audience. On both sides of the Atlantic, they increasingly see their role as responding to the needs of the public, as playing a social role.

It is perhaps out of indecision that cultural and state institutions are collecting so much in response to Sept. 11. There is a certain unwillingness to refuse material or to decide that one thing is more important than another -- which looks like a refusal to step outside of the event and look at it in historical perspective, instead just documenting it, over and over, in all its different aspects.

And the collecting of people's responses to Sept. 11 is related to cultural institutions' desire to play an increasingly social role. Dr Sarah Henry of the Museum of the City of New York said that after Sept. 11, "The city needed something from us as a museum; we felt we had to play a role in healing... Promoting civic dialogue is part of our mission." But she was wary of going too far down this road -- "we don't offer therapy". She visited the Brooklyn Museum a week after the attacks, and they "had a packet out about how to deal with tragedy, how to talk to your children after tragedy. This was a step further than what we were doing".

The growth of the therapeutic ethos is important here. Increasingly, institutions see their relationship to the public as one of soothing and healing. UK prime minister Tony Blair and former US president Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton both made caring, feeling and healing into a big part of their role as leaders. After Sept. 11, the therapeutic ethos became even more upfront -- with everybody wanting a piece of the public grieving process.

But the post-11 September scramble for stuff isn't all down to the institutions -- after all, people began to produce material responses to the attacks spontaneously, almost immediately after the attacks occurred. "Union Square became a particular focal point for kinds of public display, all sorts of sentiments", says Sarah Henry, "commemorative, memorial-type sentiments, also political ones. It literally filled up with material that people brought. It began as a gathering place, then became literally blanketed. There was a need to consider collecting that material.

"There was a cry from the public that it would be preserved for posterity -- people were calling us, sending us money. We had calls from city agencies, saying 'we find ourselves in possession of this material -- what do we do with it?'. A lot of places, where material had to be taken down, there was a great concern that it ought not be destroyed."

Some of the memorials I saw when I was in New York in October 2001 struck me as odd. There were intimate reflections on a lost loved one, angry calls for revenge, and more oblique reflections. Essentially, they were very personal, individual expressions of experience and emotion. The messages were all next to each other, but they didn't connect. And there was none of the consideration or control that normally goes into our public encounters. All you have is a disembodied fragment of somebody's emotion -- and because you don't know them, it is difficult to know what they are talking about.

These messages, poems and artworks looked like the products of vulnerable and isolated individuals, of people frightened in the face of terror. It was a graphic illustration of the "lonely crowd" -- people coming together, but ultimately alone.

The memorials emerged only 48 hours after the attacks -- people came together, seeking support and sources of meaning. After the attacks, the U.S. state to all intents and purposes collapsed - the president disappeared underground, popping up from time to time to make nervous statements. People were faced with fear and confusion, and little means to make sense of it.

As Robert Putnam claims in his book Bowling Alone, over the past few decades there has been a gradual breakdown of civic associations and community networks. People did not have strong support networks to turn to after the attacks -- so they sought solace and belonging in Union Square.

It is questionable how valuable these very personal responses will be to future historians. Aside from the general sentiment, it is difficult to glean much from many of them. The contributions were too fragmented and too self-conscious to give you the insights of a diary, where you would get a proper idea of that person's character and thoughts. They were too unmediated and emotional to serve as a public record.

For museums to actually generate responses to the event is, as Jane Carmichael says, "slightly suspect", as the point of a response is surely that it is natural and undirected. Once you start generating your exhibits, perhaps you have to question their authenticity. According to Carmichael, there may also be problems with using reflections on a historical event: "The point of collecting is to try and be as authentic and close in time to the experiences as possible. What people recollect in retrospect, the details aren't as clear. Memories aren't that reliable. The closer the account is to the event, the more reliable it is about the emotions generated about the event."

However, what we collect cannot help but say interesting things about us. The very fact that responses are being produced, and that institutions feel driven to collect them, will provide interesting historical insights.

It may also reveal a lot about the event itself. After all, Sept. 11 was defined by the reaction to it. The media coverage of the event was often more concerned with giving us experiences and reactions, than analysis. These reactions and experiences, in a sense, are what happened -- and seemed to become even more important than the actual destruction of the World Trade Centre. As Sarah Henry says, "We should try to think about what things people want to understand this event, to understand this moment in history, which is different from picking up bits of daubing -- what does that tell you exactly?".

The attacks and their aftermath, claims Henry, will have "tremendous causative impact. It may reveal things about longer processes, other issues in New York and society, that come to the surface in a moment of crisis". If the collecting after Sept. 11 is making a time capsule of our society, it is a very strange time capsule -- for a very strange time.

Josie Appleton has written articles on museums for Spectator, BBC History Magazine and Museums Journal.

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