The Difficult Choices Behind Bringing Sept. 11 Museum To Life

Alice Greenwald, the director of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, talks to Melissa Block about the museum's opening.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm joined now by the director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Alice Greenwald. Welcome to the program.

ALICE GREENWALD: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: How do you see the role and the purpose of this museum, because as the name indicates, it is both a museum and a memorial, and I would think there might be a tension really between those two missions?

GREENWALD: Well, there's a balance between those two missions. I wouldn't call it a tension. We very consciously placed our memorial component of the museum, which is called In Memoriam - it's a memorial exhibition - on the footprint of the South Tower, where the Two World Trade once stood. And it is separated from where we have our historical exhibition. But in so many respects, every part of the museum is a memorial. Everything we do, every story we tell is told through the lens of memory.

BLOCK: There are a lot of competing interests with the memorial museum. There are the interests of families of victims and rescuers, historians, the general public. And one of the points of dissension has been the question of how to include the hijackers in the museum. And I gather you've included small pictures of them but some of the family members were very opposed to that. So, how did you resolve how to present the terrorists themselves?

GREENWALD: Well, you know, we thought at one point - in the very early process of planning the museum, we asked the question would we include the hijackers. And it was very clear from the beginning that we had to, that this was not an event that was a natural disaster. It was a humanly planned and humanly executed horrific event, mass murder and we know who perpetrated it. So, not to include a reference to the perpetrators would be irresponsible in a museum that is dedicated to the documentation of accurate history and education. In the end, we made a decision to present the perpetrators in photographs that had been entered into evidence, into the Zacharias Moussaoui trial. So, these are small photographs - they're very small. They're like passport-sized photos. But each of them bears the FBI evidence sticker that was affixed to them when they were entered into evidence in a trial. So, we do present them, we introduce you to them in the context of the various airplanes that they hijacked, so it is part of the narrative of the events of the day. But we do present them in the context of them having been criminals.

BLOCK: When you thought about how to show the traumatic truth of what happened on 9/11, what was the discussion about how gruesome and horrific the images that you include in the museum should be?

GREENWALD: Well, there was a lot of discussion about it. I mean, quite frankly, every choice that we made in the museum went through a series of questions about, you know, is this appropriate, is this appropriate from the point of view of the visitors who will be coming in? You know, we're not here to traumatize the public. So, you know, what can we show that is documentary but is not in some way crossing a line. What is appropriate in terms of the standards of commemoration? You know, what can we show that still honors the victims and not exploits the experience that they went through? Those were the questions we asked over and over and over again in the creation of the museum.

BLOCK: I know you worked before this at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. And I wonder what the lessons were that you took from that experience as you thought about how to present what happened in 9/11?

GREENWALD: Well, I would have to say that the questions that we asked in creating the permanent exhibition of the Holocaust museum were very much the same kinds of questions that had to be asked here at Ground Zero and at the World Trade Center in New York. The circumstances are different. The history is different. This is not about comparative atrocities in any sense. But the questions were identical and that was a tremendous asset for me in leading this project and leading the design team in their work so that we could actually craft an exhibition that could tell the story but tell it in such a way that invited the visitors in, that was sensitive to the needs of the visitor but also sensitive to the attitudes of family members coming in and also to the memory of those who were here to commemorate.

BLOCK: I wonder with as much time as you've now spent working on this museum, looking at these artifacts, if you've gotten used to them in any way or if they still shock and horrify you in the same way that they did when you first saw them?

GREENWALD: You know, you never get used to the images of planes crashing into buildings. That never becomes easy. But what moves me and what catches me as I move through the museum periodically, you know, are the stories. It's the stories of people just like me. And you are stunned time and again at the capacity of human nature to rise above the basest part of our nature and to demonstrate what we are really truly capable of in terms of empathy and compassion and service. And this is what this museum is truly about.

BLOCK: That's Alice Greenwald. She's director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum on the site of the Twin Towers. It was dedicated today and opens to the public next Wednesday. Miss Greenwald, thanks very much.

GREENWALD: Thank you.

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