Finding Light In Darkness
How do you tell the story of a disaster without being accused of cheapening a tragedy or overwhelming visitors? More and more, buildings are opening that reveal terrible histories in an intelligent new way of curating. Budapest’s House of Terror, contains exhibits related to the equally disastrous fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building.
It could have been unbearable to visit if not for the extraordinary way in which documentarians and artists have worked together to create a political statement. The black steel exterior structure provides a frame for the museum, making it stand out in sharp contrast to the other buildings, as if Budapest has disowned the building, turning it into a ghost. The memory of those who died is still fresh; the house is surrounded by flowers left by relatives.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero in New York is understandably not on everyone’s list of top sights, but it should be, because of what it tells us about Americans. Another site-specific building, it stands between the imprint of the towers, and plunges underground in a series of sweeping, vertiginous concrete planes that reach the sea wall.
This is a museum with a psychological architecture whose construction changes your mood as you descend. At first we get broad sweeps, impressions really, of that blue-skied day – everyone remembers the colour of the sky differently that morning, so one wall consists of blue panels reflecting witnesses’ memories.
We hear air traffic messages, phonically, then see breaking news footage, but still can’t piece together what is happening. Then we see the second plane hit, and the information becomes jagged, panicked, fragmented, confused. Screens flash with information, rescue units are mobilised.
A crushed fire engine is preserved inside, along with many relics. The images and objects become more disturbing; one room shows people falling through the air. down the side of the building. Others show rescue attempts.
But ultimately the healing process is here too, the rescues, the restoration of hope and order, the help groups formed, the promises to the dead carried out, and what comes across again and again is the resilience, kindness and heroism of everyone whose lives were touched.
Not that the political ideology behind the attacks is ignored. One section deals with the history of Al-Quaida and how it came to attack the World Trade Center, which of course had been targeted a few years earlier. In many ways the museum functions as a portrait of a city tested by unthinkable extremism and surviving, so there is celebration of life here too.
Also featured at the moment is a temporary exhibition showing 33 giant New Yorker covers. From the time the original World Trade Center first rose into the skyline, it began appearing on film posters and magazines. For years, artists treated the Twin Towers playfully. After 9/11, somber imagery emerged. While the destruction of the towers wasn’t depicted, the anxiety and sadness engulfing the nation appeared graphically after the attacks. Over the years, the covers commemorated the loss of the towers while documenting the revitalization of the site.
If you’re there, do go. Sometimes museums about the modern world are more illuminating that ones dedicated to antiquity.