New Documentary Examines the Politics that Have Undermined the 9/11 MuseumBreaking News
tags: museums, war on terror, 9/11, historical memory, public history
Since it first opened seven years ago, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum has struggled to attract visitors from the tristate area. This is not to say that it’s been unpopular. The museum claimed to have drawn more than 10 million visitors in its first three years of operations, and averaged more than 3 million per year prior to the pandemic, which forced steep budget and staff cuts. Thanks to its controversial mandatory entry fee for adults, which started at $24 and has risen to $26, it has brought in nearly half a billion dollars in ticket sales alone from 2014 to 2019.
Look up the top tourist attractions in New York City on a site like TripAdvisor, and you’ll find the 9/11 Museum and the adjacent Memorial Plaza (which is free, and tastefully done) at the top of the list, beating out the Met, Central Park, and the Empire State Building. If you buy a New York Pass for a three-day visit, the museum will take up a big chunk of your itinerary. New Yorkers might prefer to be associated with world-class art, fine dining, fashion, or architecture, but for millions of tourists, a principal attraction is the chance to relive the single worst day in the city’s history.
From well before it opened, the museum has drawn criticism. Survivors of the attacks and relatives of victims, communities that are far from monolithic, have expressed anger over everything from the existence of a gift shop to the inclusion of photographs identifying the 19 hijackers. Arab and Muslim groups have formally complained that the museum does little to distinguish Al Qaeda from the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. In a scathing 2014 review, Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott accused the museum of “inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.”
Now a newly released documentary, The Outsider, expands upon Kennicott’s criticism by chronicling the debates among the museum staff about the very purpose of the project and ultimately takes the side of the titular outsider, a struggling novelist and classic New York eccentric named Michael Shulan, who served as the museum’s vaguely defined “creative director” prior to its opening.
In the immediate wake of the attacks, Shulan decided to turn his Soho storefront into a crowdsourced gallery for photographs capturing the day’s horrors, and quickly amassed what might be the largest single collection of 9/11 imagery, dubbed “Here Is New York.” It was on the basis of this collection that Shulan was invited to join a staff of more seasoned museum professionals that also included Alice Greenwald, the museum’s current chief executive, who previously worked at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Shulan did not agree to be interviewed for this article, or for any other press coverage of The Outsider. (In July, he told the New York Times, “Twenty years marks a turning point where one begins to look at things with a certain kind of hindsight. … Not asking questions just leads to further crises.”) In the film, he can frequently be seen picking fights with the other staffers over what might seem like trivial details — for instance, whether to include the famous Iwo Jima-esque photograph of firefighters raising an American flag over Ground Zero, which Shulan finds kitschy (he is overruled). He comes off as a bit obnoxious, a constant irritant among a group of professionals striving for consensus on an inherently fraught historical event. By the final months before the museum’s opening, it is clear he has been marginalized. (In an email, a museum official stressed that Shulan was not fired but acknowledged that his contract was not renewed after May 2014, four months before the opening.)
But his central argument, which the filmmakers share, is a serious one: that the purpose of a museum should be for raising questions, provoking dialogue, fostering independent scholarship and research, and allowing for a range of interpretations. All of this, The Outsider charges, the 9/11 Museum fails to do.
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