- The 9/11 Memorial Museum and the Remaking of Ground Zero
In the vast Foundation Hall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened in May 2014 at Ground Zero in New York, reside two objects that embody in many ways its complex, contradictory, moving yet problematic project. The first is the very large steel column that stands in the middle of the room, commanding over the space.
Known as the Last Column, this thirty-six-foot-high steel colossus is covered with messages to the dead, photographs, and memorial inscriptions put there by firefighters, police, rescue workers, and other laborers who worked at the recovery mission at Ground Zero for nine months. The Last Column has been much written about and as an object has been the source of a significant amount of emotion and ceremony. When the column was finally removed from the site of Ground Zero on May 30, 2002, it was draped with a flag and awarded an honor guard escort. As the museum itself narrates, “Standing tall once again, the Last Column will encourage reflection on the foundations of resilience, hope, and community with which we might build our collective future.”1
One could say that this steel column became an extraordinary object in the aftermath of September 11, one deeply invested with the grief, anger, and mourning of the site. As a symbol of resilience, because it survived, it is an object of affirmation that mediates the loss and vulnerability experienced in the events of 9/11. It speaks to the deep ethos of the public servants, engineers, and union workers who devoted themselves to the recovery and clearing of the site of Ground Zero (many of whom have suffered in the aftermath). Scrawled with names and messages, plastered with photographs, the column has been transformed into a kind of pastiche of the loss that resides at Ground Zero; on display in the museum it has been set up with a digital database, so that visitors can go to screens and tap into the stories behind the messages. Yet, importantly, the meaning of the Last Column is also about scale. It is huge, towering over the space of the hall, which itself stands seven stories underground. It is a reminder, in its size, of just how tall the twin towers were, as oversized skyscrapers that dominated the New York skyline for decades. It is also [End Page 471] a reminder of the scale of the event—that huge pieces of steel were twisted, bent, melted, and broken. This steel column in many ways embodies this massive scale and the shocking transformation of materiality that took place on 9/11 even as, at the same time, its inscriptions speak a kind of intimacy, of compassion, of sorrow.
The second object, which is on display not far from the Last Column, is a seemingly ordinary brick in a display case.
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This brick was taken from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was assassinated by US Navy Seals in 2011, and it is now on display with the jacket of one of the Navy Seals (donated by the man who wore it) and a small CIA “challenge coin” apparently awarded in the agency for a mission accomplished and donated by the CIA operative (“Maya”) who led the intelligence mission to find bin Laden. There are many troubling aspects to the inclusion of this brick in the museum, not the least of which is that the historical exhibition of the museum has only the smallest mention of the killing of bin Laden (under the title of “Accountable”). Unlike the Last Column, which is striking in its uniqueness, a steel column that could not be mistaken for another column, the bin Laden brick does not exude its historical [End Page 472] importance in its objectness. It looks like an ordinary brick, of a particular kind of sandy construction. The brick was donated by Fox News reporter Dominic Di...