How the 9/11 Museum Recapitulates the Trauma of 9/11
The museum’s original exhibition designer reflects on how it turned out, what might have been, and what still could be.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 has brought a wave of mostly unwelcome attention to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, much of it related to The Outsider, a new documentary by two filmmakers who received extensive behind-the-scenes access to the planning and construction of the museum between 2008 and its opening in 2014. The film focuses on the tension between Michael Shulan—the museum’s original creative director and its titular outsider and protagonist who wants the museum to ask questions—and Alice Greenwald, its chief executive who wants it to provide answers. Greenwald ultimately wins that fight.
One of the other people featured in the documentary is the lead exhibition designer, Tom Hennes, the founder and principal of the exhibition firm Thinc Design, who twice left the project and is clearly pained in the film by how things are going but also not interested in personalizing his issues with the museum.
So I called him and we had a series of conversations, edited here for clarity and length, about history, trauma, his hopes for and frustrations with the museum and why he’s talking more openly about those frustrations now.
HARRY SIEGEL: Can you share how you came to be involved with the museum, and your thoughts about it now?
TOM HENNES: It’s a complicated story, and it’s a complicated project. I’ve done some speaking publicly about it, but not mostly at museum forums, more around psychoanalytic meetings, things like that. Because as you can imagine, trauma is central to the story and it turns out to be more central to the museum than one might expect. So yeah, I’m perfectly happy to talk about it.
The qualification process was really exciting—a very open-ended inquiry into the meaning of 9/11 and how it affected our society and was going to affect our society going forward. I had been working in South Africa on the Freedom Park for about three years at that point. That was a project of national reconciliation, working very intensively with multiple constituencies, really extraordinary people including some of those who wrote the nation’s Constitution.
And I thought, well, this is an opportunity to create a place where we can have some of the conversations that we’re not having in this country that are analogous to the conversations that I’m part of in South Africa. And at the time, of course, we were fighting wars, we were in a very divisive state in the United States. And I saw this project, the way it had been presented, as a potential opportunity to bring people closer together and to initiate a more complex dialogue in this country than we were having. And so I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it really badly.
How does this relate to trauma?
The essence of trauma is, in a sense, the collapsing of time and the ability to think. Things become very black and white. As you read the literature of trauma, one of the key things has to do with flashback memories where time in a sense becomes suspended as the people who are involved don’t have the opportunity to even witness their own escape in a real way. The mind splits literally, neurologically, between the part of the brain that records sensation and feeling and the part of the brain that records the narrative of the event. And it takes time for those parts to become reconnected. That’s one of the reasons that after trauma, people are so dislocated and often unable to quote-unquote get over it. It’s because they haven’t really been able to narrate the event to themselves yet.
This comes out of a huge body of research that started with the Holocaust but it’s really important in respect to 9/11. The example I use is W. saying “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” That’s a collapsed narrative. There’s no in-between space. It’s squashed into either-or. And the country headed down that path in a big way. My interest in the museum was in un-collapsing that space and allowing the narrative to complexify a little bit. Yes, you can be both with us and sympathetic to other people’s gripes about the United States. Yes, you can be with us and you can question the tactics of going to war. Yes, you can be with us and question the attacks on Muslims. Yes, you can be with us and also understand that the world’s a complex place, and we have to learn more about that complexity in order to navigate it.
There were lots of forces collapsing that narrative, and I saw the museum as a great opportunity to uncollapse it. But I didn’t have this language at the time—that developed in the experience of it—and as it turned out that the same collapse in narrative that happened in the society after 9/11 was also happening in the Museum. There was a lot of urge to encapsulate the narrative of what happened into a single story.
And we started the project saying, well, there are lots of stories and we don’t actually know how they come out yet. It’s a work in progress. Osama bin Laden was still alive. We were fighting a bunch of wars, everybody was looking over their shoulders at what’s going to be the next attack—the museum itself is a fortress because of that, and legitimately so.
And so the thing that the film depicts, which is this tension between an unfinished story and a finished story, is integral to how trauma works on our minds and how it’s worked on our society. You can’t really separate what happens in the museum from what’s happening outside the museum. It manifests itself in different ways but it’s all of a piece.
Shutting down this kind of discussion is a reasonable response when you think about the need for closure at the Memorial itself—memorializing is about being able to wrap up the memory and put it in a place so this society can move on. Whereas a museum is about almost exactly the opposite, at least in my view. It’s about opening things up so society can continue to interrogate. And so in many ways, that was a big clash between these two urges.
And (in The Outsider) Michael came to represent one side and Alice the other side. But I don’t see it quite as interpersonally as the film depicts it. I see it as a product of a lot that was going on and the intense pressures as a lot of shit happened. I personally, professionally had a lot of challenges within it and there are parts of the Museum that I would readily disavow, because they aren’t built the way I would have designed them, particularly the historical exhibition under the North Tower footprint. It is built on the bones of what we intended, but its muscles have been connected up in a way that makes it a completely different animal.
Am I wrong to think that the original sin in some ways was the idea of combining a museum and a memorial, or was that necessary given all of the stakeholders involved here and the real estate complexities around redeveloping where the Towers had been?
You’re not wrong. I think in some ways, it is, that is very much a part of the problem. But on the flip side, you can’t make a museum like this without intimate involvement of the stakeholders, because they’re the ones who make it real. And, of course, the stakeholders are not unified. Family members have very different perspectives on particular issues as do people in the neighborhood. It’s not like these were monolithic blocks.
But the whole task of leadership is to hold in mind what the objectives of the institution are, and we had a pretty good formulation of those objectives in the beginning. The first workshop we conducted was to come up with what’s the purpose of the museum, what are we trying to do here? And what came out of it was to better prepare people for the complexity of the world that came out of 9/11. It was well understood that we had to memorialize, we had to commemorate, we had to tell the story. You can’t come into the territory without doing that, and it’s really important to do that—to be an archive, to be a container for that story.
But it was also important to understand that at the point when we started, five years after the event, you don’t know what the story is yet. History isn’t written yet. And so you’ve got to be kind of open to bobbing and weaving and, crucially, to looking at it a decade after that and saying, Well, what sticks? What strikes us as premature? What strikes us as really holding fast? And what do we really need to change here?
The original plan was to have a much more flexible way of interpreting the content through first-person narrative, keeping the museum storytelling to a relative minimum, just kind of helping guide people to connect the dots, not trying to say this is the story of 9/11. It was to try to represent the many stories of 9/11. So that, as time went on, you could adjust.
When the museum opened, the most important thing at that time was to get it open and get the public to see it and not have a big story around it. So talking about the museum seemed counterproductive to what the real story needed to be, which is, How do we reflect on 9/11? Reflecting on the museum was so beside the point in terms of national significance, let’s not even go there. It’s a red herring.
But now, at the 20th anniversary, I’m thinking maybe it’s not such a red herring today and because museums disproportionately punch above their weight in terms of the influence they have. It’s not just the narratives that are told in them, but the impressions people come away with, not least because they’re cathedral-like spaces. They’re very powerful, in terms of shaping the way we understand who we are, who others are—you know, what’s valuable and what’s not valuable. And so the museum is actually part of the conversation.
There are many museums that could have been made, and many ways that this museum could adapt as we pass through the stages of mourning and as the significance of 9/11 shifts. And if the museum isn’t changing, then that’s probably worth raising as a part of our social discourse. It’s probably worth asking ourselves how stuck we are in our own narrative of 9/11, because I think a lot of what’s happened with polarization over the last few years, while it’s not all attributed to 9/11, there are threads of 9/11 that are wound around all of it.
Again, it’s the collapsed narrative: either you’re with us or with the terrorists, Republican, Democrat, conservative or liberal. The middle space has been consistently compressed and compressed and compressed and compressed and compressed. And maybe it started before that, and 9/11 was an accelerant. How we navigate ourselves out of this by generating space for dialogue and space for narrative nuance and narrative complexity is a real question and to that extent, I think the museum is a character in this story, and probably an important character.
Have you thought over the last year and a half about how the trauma of 9/11 relates to the trauma New York City is going through now with COVID-19?
I don’t have a great pronouncement, but I have thought a lot about this. We are in a sense generating our own trauma now. It was never going to be good. New York’s first wave just came—it was like AIDS in that nobody saw it was coming, nobody knew what to do about it until it was too late and we were in it. And then I think the city responded this time with remarkable unity. Obviously, there were pockets that were not part of it. But again, we have this collapse. Ironically it’s become politicized around a vaccine that’s arguably was one of the few things that Trump could have claimed credit for.
The thing about 9/11 is that you can draw a circle around it. You can’t draw a circle around Afghanistan or Iraq and the injuries and trauma that have come out of America’s reaction to it, but you can draw a circle around the date. It’s very hard to draw a circle around the victims of COVID because it’s everywhere, and we’re still in the midst of it. I think we’re absolutely going to have to find ways to mourn not only the dead, but also the losses around what we thought was the world we lived in. This is one that’s going to take some time. We’re still living the collapse.
I am absolutely convinced that a substantial portion of the polarity that we’re living through today is a sequela to 9/11 and our response to it. We’re still grappling with it and still grappling with what it means. It’s not the only thing that’s shaping the narrative today, but I do feel like it’s shaped and warped and altered what the narrative might otherwise have been.
There are a few glimpses of “Truthers” in the film, who I hadn’t thought about in a decade. But one of the interesting things about Loose Change was that they kept updating the film—it was a living narrative. So as the questions they were “just asking” got debunked, they put in new questions, and while their answers never grabbed me I found the narrative-building fascinating at the time and, in hindsight, it seems like a sign of where things were going online. The museum, by contrast, seems like it’s very much telling the same story it was a decade ago. Was it necessary to freeze the story, in part because of people like the Truthers, or is that something that could have changed or could still change?
That was something that was discussed extensively for many years. In South Africa, we were saying let’s not have a curatorial narrative, let’s actually use the archive that was built as part of the project to to collect narratives and continually update the exhibits with the stories we collect from people. You want curators selecting those stories and vetting them and saying, Yeah, that’s probably not really true. Or, that may be true, let’s put it in juxtaposition with this. But to let that narrative evolve, and to see what history gets written as people come forward and tell their stories. And there was a lot of discussion about a similar way of approaching it here. I don’t think this ever would have been as open to that, because we don’t have a culture that’s open to that. But it was certainly possible.
And being able to swap stories out and being able to change the narrative was absolutely a part of the original planning. Things like the movie about Al Qaeda. It’s exactly the projection method we designed. But as I recall the movie that we conceived, and that didn’t get made, was a movie told by members of Al Qaeda and people who had fought Al Qaeda. The idea was, if we can tell a story using the words of the people who are involved, no matter whether we agree with them or not, we can put it out there and people can make sense of it at least. There’s a lot of material out there and some of it’s propaganda, and I don’t really want to use propaganda unless we label it as such. But there are voices that we could have pulled from the Middle East, and wouldn’t have been a news reader doing a script. It would have been curated, it would have been shaped, it would have had a narrative structure. But it would have tried to be true to the different perspectives that make up that history. Because how the hell else do we actually understand?
That’s an example of something that could have evolved and could have been done in a way that I think would have been much more authentic to people trying to comprehend why in the hell something like this could happen. Again, it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with it. It’s about understanding the world from different perspectives. And trusting the people who go to the museum to be able to decide what it is that makes sense to them. I’m talking about something that’s fairly utopian, and I’m talking about an extreme example of it.
In an exhibit about how the buildings collapsed, there’s an important artifact that is not well explained. You don’t really understand what’s important about it, it’s just another piece of bent steel. It’s a piece of a piece of column that compressed on itself from the heat. Most of the columns were cold-bent from the force of the collapse, but in a couple of places they bent and collapsed because of heat. And that’s where the fire weakened the structure and the collapse began. And if you understand that, you go, Oh, okay. Yeah, that kind of makes sense.
And it’s evidentiary. It’s not anybody’s opinion, it’s metallurgy, and it’s forensic reconstruction. There are codes on all the steel from the construction process. So for the most part, the investigators knew in the wreckage where in the building each piece came from. So you can tell a very comprehensive story of the forensics with a few objects, an animation, and the voices of the researchers. And you can put that in juxtaposition with the people who believe that it was all a plot and say, You know this is all out here, let’s let it sit and let people judge for themselves.
We’re not going to convince any of the conspiracy theorists in the museum. But we can represent that as a part of the social history that followed 9/11 and do our best to show what the evidence is. What else can we do?
It’s about trusting the people who come to see it, it’s about letting go a bit of the need to control the narrative. And it felt like that need to control the narrative increased over time. It’s about saying a museum can be both an archive and a museum—an archive in the sense that it houses the evidence, a museum in the sense that it weaves narrative around that, but recognizing that that narrative can change because history is written from the present tense. The histories that will be written of 9/11 in 2050 are going to be really different from what you write today. The thing is to preserve the original material. And from an experiential point of view, to give people a feeling of having authentically connected with the closest thing you can get to the truth of the story while coming away with their own conclusions. For that, you have to be able to trust.
Given the mistakes that have been baked in, is it too late for the museum to correct course?
The original design was intended to try to mitigate the anxiety people would feel. They could reduce the clutter that recapitulates that traumatic flooding. The original version was intended to try to mitigate the anxiety people would feel and to give them the ability to think while they’re in the exhibit. Instead, it crowds people. So I think the leadership would have to say, Let’s simplify, let’s pull things out. And I think that would be very difficult for them.
But yeah, you could absolutely do that. It’s about making space for the visitors to find their own place in all of this. And to be able to move from shock to think, from this somatic assault of crowded objects and recorded sounds to being able to process and place themselves somewhere—and where they place themselves is none of my damn business. I want to give them the tools and I want to give them the raw materials to be able to think coherently about it. And what they do with that, that’s their business. I have to trust that.
I talked to Bloomberg, at one point to thank him for his public position on the quote-unquote Ground Zero Mosque And he sort of looked at me and sort of cocked his head and said, “Well, if you believe in the First Amendment it’s an easy position to take.”
And that’s the way I feel about museums. If you can’t trust visitors to make sense of things, then you’re not really doing it right. If there’s a sin, that’s the sin. It’s trying to maneuver people into thinking a particular way about this, when there’s so many ways that you can come away feeling. And so many ways that people walk in the door feeling: The government betrayed us, the government protected us, the workers were heroes, the workers are victims—you can go on and on and on. The story of the lives that were saved after the attack in February of 1993—you can look at it as either a failure because we didn’t get everybody out or a success because so many got out.
There’s just so many ways of seeing it and then the real view of it as a product of all of those things and saying, Holy f-ck, we are human. There is no single answer here. And that's what I think museums ought to be aiming for. And to some extent, we succeeded. I’ll stand by the parts of the museum that are outside the historical exhibition, with one exception, which is the exhibit of the guy who killed bin Laden, which I think is barbaric and should not be there. But I can’t help that.
It’s in a case that’s in the big Foundation Hall on the west side, the big, tall, open space when you come out of that historical exhibition. And it’s a case with a jacket from the guy who killed bin Laden and a brick from bin Laden’s house, and that gallery is supposed to be providing an opportunity for us to kind of come together and think of ourselves as a community, an ethical community of mourning, to think of what people did after 9/11, the positive things that people did with our lives that, the ways people came together or the ways they split apart, to be able to really be meditative about the experience. And then here’s this case with the killing of bin Laden.
If you think bin Laden was the problem and killing bin Laden was the answer, then you sort of miss the larger point about the world we’re living in. The whole fucking world is sucked into this vortex and it’s more complicated than that. If we’re gonna shape the world in a different way, that kind of simplicity is not helpful. And as understandable and as necessary at times as that narrative is, I get it— I’m not an idiot and I’m not a utopian but I’m also trying to chart a different path in the work that I do and my firm does.
One more example: On the escalator going up out of that lower level, there’s a big photograph to the right of it of one of the memorial commemorations on the site, when it was still a big hole in the ground. And it’s not triumphalist, but it’s redemptive. That message of that is the message of memorialization: We were attacked in a terrible way and innocent people were killed, and we all pulled together and came together and we righted the wrong and we came out stronger for it. This is the timeless narrative of a memorial. And that’s kind of what’s encapsulated in that picture and it’s a beautiful picture, it’s meaningful.
At the time that we were finalizing the design, there was a question about where we were going to put the names of the people who had died from exposure to chemicals and such on the site. And I think that meeting is one of the meetings that’s depicted in the film, but that part of the meeting isn’t. I suggested that we put that list of names on a column, so that on the left we see that narrative that we are victims to our own, that the government didn’t protect us, that’s the narrative, and on the right the narrative of how we came together and were redeemed. And I said it would be powerful to have those two things opposite of each other because you’re going to have people in the museum who are more strongly feeling one way or the other.
If they see their perspective acknowledged, maybe they’ll look the other way and be more open to the other one and see that these two things actually coexist in the same space. It’s a paradox. It’s not a polarity. It’s not either-or, it’s and-and and maybe that would be a powerful thing to leave people with, because it gives them a sense of being able to pass between these two things and seeing that they are both there and that they don’t annihilate each other.
In the end, there was a scrolling list we put opposite the last column of all the people who had worked on the side. It has a signifier next to those who died. It’s well done, but it’s also an example of how contrasting narratives could otherwise have been brought into juxtaposition by putting those things out there and letting people discover them and letting people respond to them, not only be reactive. And for me, that’s the work to be done—the work that would make these places better.
The people who were killed on 9/11, it happened to be these people. There is no justification for it, there is no making it better. There is simply making what we can—honoring it and at the same time learning what we can from the horror that happened. There is no inherent meaning in those horrible deaths. There’s no good in it at all.
And so we have to make meaning. That’s what humans do. We have to make meaning and lessons that hopefully make wisdom out of something horrible, and in doing so move on from it. Otherwise, we just stay there forever in that burning pit with people who died. We can’t do that; we have to live.