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Thursday, June 8, 2023

9/11 Memorial & Museum Faces Forward While Honoring the Past

How do we create and sustain a society where the 9/12 values of compassion and solidarity are the norm rather than the exception?

Every year since 2001, four million people have been born in the United States. That’s tens of millions of people, born during the two decades since the unthinkable happened in New York City, at the Pentagon, and near Shanksville, Pa. They are growing up in a world altered, a modern society continually molded, by one of the most significant events in American – if not global – history, an event they neither witnessed nor experienced.

This generation has no memory of what is, for the rest of us, an unforgettable moment. They have no way to comprehend a world “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.”

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum exists to bridge this gap in knowledge, to provide context and understanding. The Memorial and the Museum help make sense of a cataclysmic event that changed our daily lives. In the wake of 9/11, we’ve grown accustomed to heightened security at ballgames, an air travel industry completely transformed, and increased public surveillance.

And we’ve watched as tens of thousands of individuals who escaped the falling towers or rushed to rescue others or simply returned to their homes and schools in lower Manhattan have continued to suffer – and far too many die – from debilitating illnesses caused by exposure to Ground Zero toxins two decades ago.

Created in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in which 2,977 men, women, and children were indiscriminately killed, this institution remains committed to its core mission of commemoration, education, and inspiration. That mission has not changed.

Our work, however, is evolving and deepening as the Memorial & Museum leads the world in observing the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

The Memorial & Museum has earned recognition as a convener of programs that speak to critical and timely national issues. It is seen worldwide as a symbol of healing, renewal, and hope in the aftermath of tragedy. Dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing stories of leadership, courage, service, and sacrifice, it stands as a powerful reminder that, in the face of adversity and unfathomable loss of life, our capacity for hope and resilience will see us through.

This message of hope, perseverance, and courage resonates deeply at this moment, as we are confronting the worst global health crisis in over a century. No doubt, this message will continue to be instructive and inspirational in the face of challenges we cannot yet imagine. If 9/11 teaches us anything, it is that we can prevail, we can rebuild, and we will keep moving forward together, all the while remembering, honoring, and preserving history.

The past year is a case in point. Like so many other cultural organizations, we faced the unimaginable reality of having to close our doors in mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic. Through six months of closure, we navigated uncharted waters, learning how to work remotely and convert our on-site programming to virtual formats, all the while facing unprecedented financial challenges as our primary source of operating income – revenue from Museum attendance – collapsed entirely. Despite it all, we remained committed to our mission.

The generosity and unwavering support of our members and donors, the exceptional leadership and commitment of our Chairman and Board of Trustees, and a professional staff whose dedication and creativity are unequaled made this possible.

In confronting the shock and grief of the present moment, and as we witnessed the outpouring of gratitude and encouragement for those on the front lines of response to the current crisis, we recognized common ground with the history we commemorate, document and teach at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

Then, as now, we cheered on those who – selflessly and courageously – rushed to help, whether to rescue, recover, or rebuild.

Our city and country have endured tremendous heartbreak this past year, and mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I am hopeful that our nation can find strength and reassurance in the reminders this milestone anniversary provides of our capacity for compassion and tenacity regardless of the circumstances.

For the next 20 years, and for the foreseeable future, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum will focus on honoring through commemoration, understanding the ongoing repercussions of 9/11, educating the next generation, and helping to build a more secure world.

We will lead these efforts through our exhibitions, public programs, student field trips, and professional training for teachers; by continuing and expanding our programs for law enforcement, intelligence agencies and the military; by encouraging dialogue across the public and private sectors; through educational publications and original documentary film productions; by continuing to build, catalogue and conserve collections and archives that document this history for posterity; and by leading the nation in commemoration of those who were so senselessly killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, honoring all who have continued to suffer and die from 9/11-related illnesses.

“I am hopeful that our nation can find strength and reassurance in the reminders this milestone anniversary provides of our capacity for compassion and tenacity regardless of the circumstances”

This work will only be possible through the continued support of dedicated individuals, corporations, foundations, and government programs, support that is even more crucial now with the impacts of the pandemic on our ability to earn revenue from admissions and as more time passes from the day our world changed forever.

“One day, you’re going to be faced with a situation you are not prepared for, a situation you could never have imagined. And you’re going to be ordered to just figure it out. So, you do.”    

That’s what NYPD Deputy Inspector Jimmy Luongo, who responded on 9/11, said to a group of New York City homicide detectives gathered at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

On the afternoon of 9/11, Luongo was ordered to set up a massive forensic operation at a reopened landfill on Staten Island called Fresh Kills. The wreckage at Ground Zero – 1.8 million tons of debris that was once the World Trade Center complex – needed to be hauled there for sifting to recover any identifiable personal property and human remains. And this operation was to begin before daybreak the next morning!

Nothing had prepared him for what he now needed to do. As Incident Commander, he was ordered to “just figure it out.”

At some point in our lives, we may all have to confront something we’ve never imagined. And we will just have to figure out how to get through it the best way we know how.

It’s lessons like these and many more that are shared at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum with young recruits and veteran agents, probationary officers and newly hired analysts representing agencies from across the globe, all of them seeking a deeper understanding of their organizations’ missions and working to build a more secure world.

Participants have included the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA, among others. In 2019, the FBI made our professional training program mandatory for all new agents and analysts. For these groups, our professional training programs reinforce that deeper connection to values and missions. Participants come away understanding the relevance of 9/11 as it relates to the critical work they do in safeguarding our nation. And these programs have the potential to impact not only those with years of experience in their fields, but the next generation of public servants charged with our security and safety.

These courageous men and women who watch over us were celebrated in our original documentary film produced in partnership with History Channel that aired in May, on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Special Forces raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The film traces the decade-long search for terrorist Osama bin Laden through interviews with individuals directly involved in the hunt. Its production was inspired by the Museum’s special exhibition, Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden, which has not only provided a unique experience for our visitors but has also served as a classroom for those helping to keep us safe.

Children of the post-9/11 generation are too young to have a personal memory of the events of 9/11. Some were not even born when they occurred. These young people entered a world where terrorism is, quite simply, a fact of life. As this generation navigates this “new normal,” the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is creating and expanding far-reaching educational programs, which include our “Anniversary in the Schools” webinar. Through this online, interactive experience, a collection of first-person accounts of the attacks and their aftermath are provided to students across the country, ensuring that this new generation gains the knowledge and perspective to negotiate a world defined in many ways by the attacks and their consequences.

What is the impact of such a program? Since launching Anniversary in the Schools in 2016, we have served more than a million participants from all 50 states, 40 countries, and two U.S. territories.

Another way our institution is reaching this next generation in conjunction with the 20th anniversary is through a new, downloadable poster exhibition on the history of the 9/11 attacks.

Titled September 11, 2001, it is currently being distributed digitally to thousands of libraries across the country with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This initiative provides an opportunity to educate entire communities and encourage intergenerational conversations on important lessons learned from the attacks 20 years ago.

This year, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum will lead the nation in observing the 20th anniversary at the site where 9/11 happened. The families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing will gather to remember their loved ones and how they lived. We will join them in commemoration.

On 9/11, far too many of us lost family, friends, and co-workers; we grieved for strangers; we reeled in shock. We came together to pray and to mourn; we cheered those who met the challenge of rescue and recovery; we affirmed our resilience and resolve. And we chose to commemorate and rebuild. The 9/11 Memorial opened in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The Museum followed three years later.

9/11 Memorial & Museum Faces Forward While Honoring the Past Homeland Security Today
Maj Anthony Chung US Military Academy Preparatory School Brigade Tactical Officer talks with Cadet Candidates Gabriel Smith and Kasin Thomas at the site of the North Tower excavation Sept 10 2019 during the schools annual visit to the 911 Museum Memorial to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks US Army photo by Brandon OConnor

Since then, more than 50 million people have paid their respects at the Memorial, and nearly 18 million have crossed the threshold of the Museum. The Memorial & Museum is a sacred place.     Situated at the very heart of a rebuilt World Trade Center site, the Memorial & Museum is inextricably woven into the fabric of our city and nation. It is a place of pilgrimage and comfort; a refuge for remembrance.

But it is not only about the past. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum ALSO offers an opportunity to contemplate the future, taking stock of where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

As we enter the third decade since the 9/11 attacks, we will continue to leverage the moral authority, the power of this place, and the convening capability that we have already established to reinforce our role as THE preeminent place to confront, explore, and address – in all of its manifestations – terrorism and its impact on society. Still, the heart and soul of the Memorial & Museum’s message is broader and more aspirational.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we witnessed what we at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum have come to call “9/12” – a response characterized by the recognition of shared grief and shared responsibility to one another, by empathy and compassion, and by focusing on what connects us rather than what divides us.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­In the weeks and months after 9/11, many experienced this effect: the spontaneous hugs given to strangers; the outpouring of concern and support; the impulse to volunteer. The shared understanding that we were in this together.

How do we create and sustain a society where the values of compassion and solidarity are the norm rather than the exception?

While the full 9/12 effect has waned since the months after the attacks, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum continues to share these memories so we may aspire to be what we were then as often as possible today.

There is no better evidence of our institution’s 9/12 values than our commitment to helping communities affected since 9/11 by acts of extreme violence and mass loss of life. Recognized as a global leader in memorialization, we have provided curatorial guidance to the Boston City Archivist following the 2013 marathon bombing; offered advice on memorial design and educational programs for the 22 July Information Center in Oslo and the memorial on Utøya island in Norway; shared our experiences managing relations and communications with victims’ families in Paris; and consulted on community outreach in Orlando after the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016. And these are just a few.

In coming months, staff will be sharing our expertise with the planners of a memorial to the 10 students and teachers killed in the May 2018 school shooting at the Santa Fe High school in Texas and as well with colleagues at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial planning a new Visitor Education center.

Set within the foundations of the World Trade Center – at the epicenter of Ground Zero – the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a place where we can begin to imagine together the kind of world we want to build for the generations that will follow us… a world in which remembrance contains within it the seeds of resilience and renewal.

Convening power. Harnessing the transformative potential of remembrance. Providing a new generation with tools to negotiate the challenges ahead. Training the next generation of leaders. All this and more defines the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as we enter the third decade after the attacks.

This is now the post-9/11 world and every day, events that can be traced back to 9/11 continue to unfold and shape our present and our future. Our duty to posterity is to preserve the complete history of 9/11, track its continuing impacts and far-reaching implications in today’s world, and inspire renewal through remembrance.

We understand this to be a sacred obligation – and, in truth, our work has only just begun.

Alice M. Greenwald
Alice M. Greenwald has been the Director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum since 2006. Before joining the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Greenwald served as Associate Museum Director for Museum Programs for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Greenwald has also served as Executive Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia; Acting Director, Curator and Assistant Curator of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum in Los Angeles; and Curatorial Assistant at the Maurice Spertus Museum in Judaica, Chicago.

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