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Melancholic mania: a conclusion

The continuous negotiation and engagement with unfathomable loss at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum attempts to both resolve the trauma of 9/11 as well as enshrine its collective loss in place. Here, affective heritage encircles the tenuous space between mourning and melancholy, resulting in both the return to loss at the site and an “enduring devotion” to comprehending mass death and its illusive meaning, in absentia (Eng and Kazanjian 2003, 3). The cultural institution’s curation of traumatic loss is, as a result, haunted by the violence engendered at the World Trade Center and the persistence of its ghosts, leaving this painful history largely unresolved. For instance, the continuous repatriation of Ground Zero remains to victims’ next of kin as new technologies become available, acts, for some families, as a compulsive reminder of their loss and the traumatic events that brought it on. As one mother described the recurrent reception of her son’s remains, “Nobody gets it. They don’t understand why I’m stuck in such an awful place” (McGinty 2011). She recalls being notified shortly after the attacks that her son’s remains had been found, and then again five years later, which forced her and her family to make a decision as to what to do with the new remains, given that they had previously held a public memorial and funeral service (McGinty 2011). Some families are left reliving their losses again and again, especially those denied the right to grieve publicly.

When death is caused by disastrous events such as terrorism, processes of bereavement require working through grief in relation to these traumatic, life-changing events (Kübler-Ross and Kessler 2005, 175-81). After 9/11, grief management was dedicated to mending the wounded sites and healing emotional wounds. As Doss (2010) reminds us, the recent cultural fascination with memory and memorialization is underpinned by the violence of the twentieth century and the traumatic absences it produced. But are there, as she warns, “psychic and political dangers for a nation seemingly ‘too attached’ to public expressions of grief,” and is grief always “a successful or productive public affect” as far as trauma is concerned, particularly when the suffering of some is privileged over the suffering of others (Doss 2010, 64)? Although the 9/11 Memorial & Museum was “designed to help those who were most affected by the attacks to heal”, the site remains a fresh wound for many (“Mission Statements,” National September 11 Memorial & Museum n.d.). Instead, divergent sentiments of place exacerbated social division as various groups sought to dictate the site’s cultural meaning, including the right to critique it. Like the unclaimed remains residing at Ground Zero’s bedrock, these traumatic events continue to haunt the 9/11 Memorial & Museum at its foundational core: how should the space be designed, for whom, and for what instructive ends? What this difficult place of memory teaches us about the past, however, will ultimately dictate our collective future. I now turn to questions of pedagogy and the role of affective heritage in shaping what visitors can and do ‘take away’ from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum—what they learn about this painful past and its ongoing relationship to our unfolding present.


  • 1 “9/11 families”, “9/11 family members”, or “victims’ families” are government-and media-derived terms used to describe individuals with next-of-kin relations to those who died in the terror attacks. The terms are also used interchangeably to determine authority claims—including the right to speak on behalf of the dead and access to relief funds granted and determined by the federal government. The terms are contested by various communities—first responders dying of toxic exposure, immigrant communities, LGBT couples and families, amongst others—who have been affected by the attacks but excluded from mnemonic narratives, which sometimes included legal benefits and monetary compensation. For example, most of the surviving partners of LGBT-identified victims of the attacks were not recognized as “next of kin” as same-sex marriage was not yet legalized in the United States. Unless the late partner was a foreign national in a state that provided LGBT marriage protections, the surviving partner did not receive financial compensation for their losses, nor were they, in many cases, even publicly acknowledged.
  • 2 This statement should not be read as an attempt to create false dichotomies between the public and private, nor the catastrophic and mundane scales at which the September 11 attacks reverberated. For instance, there were a number of staff members working on World Trade Center redevelopment for whom the rebuilding efforts were deeply entrenched within personal experiences of loss. As such, efforts by these staff members to secure the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s completion correlated with personal desires to memorialize their loved ones. Here, healing occurred at both scales—the individual and collective—as the creation of cultural memory startles both. Likewise, the mundane, everyday geographies traversed by these workers as they moved between work and home were intimately interconnected to the catastrophic experience of collective loss and the absences felt across the aforementioned scales.
  • 3 All names and job titles have been removed from interview transcripts to preserve the anonymity of National September 11 Memorial & Museum staff members contributing to this research. Interviewed staff members included upper administration and medium-level employees working at the institution from 2009 to 2013.
  • 4 Even the term Ground Zero, which originates with the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, has sparked intense debate over the site’s popular namesake and its etymology, a historical fact routinely omitted from dominant narratives of “September 11” (see Greenberg 2003).
  • 5 The below-grade repository was established in partnership with 9/11 family groups in 2004 and fulfills a promise to return unidentified remains to the site (see Cohen 2012).
  • 6 In a subsequent development, flooding of the World Trade Center site during super storm Hurricane Sandy added a new factor for the appellate court to consider when deciding the fate of the remains in the below-grade repository: had the remains been inside the museum when the hurricane hit, as one plaintiff levied, “body parts would be floating all over Manhattan!” (Dobnik 2013).
  • 7 It should be noted that coalitions of 9/11 family members have regularly sued over the issue of remains. In 2005, for example, a group of families threatened to file a lawsuit against the city if human remains, collected alongside debris removal, were left in the Staten Island landfill known as “Fresh Kills.” As a compromise, a park is now being erected at the toxic, garbage-filled site (see O’Donnell 2005). In 2006, families also sued to stop construction at the 9/11 Memorial, arguing that pouring concrete slabs at bedrock would impede families from accessing the ‘authentic’ final resting place of their loved ones (Associated Press 2006).
  • 8 Plans for the Joyce to inhabit the site were also eventually shelved in 2014 due to financial constraints over the proposed Perelman Performing Arts Centers; construction for the Center has since moved forward, but without the Joyce as its tenant.
  • 9 An online campaign to “relieve Debra Burlingame of her position on the Board of Directors of the 9/11 Museum” emerged in response to Islamophobic comments made by Burlingame on Fox News and on social media outlets after the Museum’s opening (see Otterman 2014b). The campaign was, however, unsuccessful in its effort to unseat her. Burlingame is still listed as a museum trustee at the time of this writing.
  • 10 As examples of this, please refer to the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, or “Special Registration” program for Muslim and Arab immigrants, officially enacted from 2002 to 2011, as well as undercover surveillance at regional mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and other community institutions, by the NYPD and NJSP (see Shamas and Arastu 2013).
  • 11 For transparency, the entire layout of the historical exhibition (HE1, HE2, and HE3) was under review during the 2009-2010 Conversation Series, although none received the same attention as HE2. It should also be noted that, in 2010, an additional design firm, Layman Design, Inc., joined the project to help “enhance and complete” the historical exhibition, which, up until that point, had been in the hands of Thine Design with Local Projects (Meeting Minutes, National September 11 Memorial Museum, October 27, 2010).
  • 12 The specific demographic makeup of the Conversation Series participants changed slightly each year, depending on the agenda, but it generally consisted of victims’ family members, 9/11 Memorial & Museum staff, building survivors, rescue personnel, Lower Manhattan residents and business owners, heritage industry professionals, landmark preservationists, historians, museum and art educators, interfaith clergy, government and municipal leaders, historians, and trauma professionals.
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