Finding Light In Darkness

Observatory

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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.

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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.

9 comments on “Finding Light In Darkness”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    More illuminating because the artists/architects have personal memories which add life to their projects?

  2. Ken Mann says:

    The NYPD’s museum has a room dedicated to fallen police officers. You reach 9/11 and the number goes up… They don’t make a big deal of it, just let the badges speak for themselves, and a laconic note that some of their kit was recovered from landfill. Moving.

  3. Denise Treadwell says:

    I think of the children on those planes, who were coming to California that morning. Full of hope to experience a different locale.

  4. Bill says:

    The sky that day was immaculate, amazing; I’ve never seen a sky like that since, and I hardly think it is because of some sort of psychological amnesia or retrogressive wish fulfillment- it was a shockingly gorgeous clear blue day, both going to work and leaving a few short hours later. A blueness layered liked a perfectly multiplied cleaved miraculous mineral.

    There was ever anything like that sky, and never will be again.

  5. Bill says:

    The sky that day was immaculate, amazing; I’ve never seen a sky like that since, and I hardly think it is because of some sort of psychological amnesia or retrogressive wish fulfillment- it was a shockingly gorgeous clear blue day, both going to work and leaving a few short hours later. A blueness layered liked a perfectly multiplied cleaved miraculous mineral.

    There was never anything like that sky, and never will be again.

  6. Eleanor Massey says:

    Thank you, Christopher. The decision as to whether sad places should be made memorials or not is not an easy one, but this thoughtful piece about the Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial Museum sorts things out.
    In your Forgotten Authors part 1 blog (I’ve been out of touch for a while) one of your readers, Helen Martin, mentions the children’s book, A Parcel of Patterns. Helen, I’m supposing you have found it, and the name of the author – Jill Paton Walsh. I have it sitting in front of me. The loss of all those brilliant 60s/70s children’s books is an awful thing. On my first visit to England in 1985 – for two weeks – I took trains from London to Buxton and taxied (ouch) from Buxton to Eyam, book in hand. (a teacher, of course)
    Sorry to bring this up here, but Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 1 is now closed for comment.
    Thank you, Christopher.

  7. Brooke says:

    Bill is right. It was a beautiful day and it continued to be a gorgeous clear day even after we all struggled home in silence.
    The New Yorker cover for the week was all black–no finely drawn cartoon, no Augustus Tilly, no masthead.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Eleanor. I don’t need the book now as I’m retired, but I think I will try to find a copy as I really enjoyed it.
    Thank you Eleanor. I don’t need the book now that I’m retired but I think I will try to find a copy since I enjoyed it so much.

  9. Graham says:

    In addition to the 9/11 museum, there’s a small, very old church nearby called St. Paul’s Chapel, old enough the George Washington worshipped there. During 9/11 it was used by many first responders to get into their gear before heading into the towers. Now it’s a monument to them. Being in that church was a very moving experience for me.

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