Over at Marginalia Review of Books, Peter Gardella has written a piece entitled “July 4th and the 9/11 Museum in American Civil Religion.” Particularly interesting is his discussion of the difference between older and newer memorials/monuments. You can read the full essay here. Gardella writes:
One quality all of these new and transformed memorials share is an increase in the intensity of personal experience they seek to induce in the visitor. Traditional monuments — such as the obelisk of the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Rushmore — gain their power through scale and emotional distance. Evoking greatness by inducing awe, they lead viewers to revere the people and ideals for which they stand.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed that dynamic by bringing the names of the dead down to the level of the living visitors, and by writing the names on black granite so polished that the visitors see themselves reflected in it. No distance separates the living from the dead. Visitors respond by leaving items for the departed, as they do on the polished brass of the 9/11 Memorial.
Similar intimacy marks the other new memorials. The Holocaust Memorial and Museum has piles of shoes from victims. Ellis Island sends visitors past heaps of old luggage, to climb the same stairway where doctors quickly judged immigrants’ health.
At the new 9/11 Museum, visitors hear the last messages victims left, calling their loved ones on cell phones and answering machines. Police and fire department radios play their announcements, messages, and requests for help. A bicycle rack stands with bent bikes waiting for riders who never returned. Eyeglasses and shoes, racks of jeans and sweatshirts to be sold on that day, mangled fire trucks and ambulances, all mingle in rooms where televisions constantly play the news of one airplane hitting the North tower, another hitting the South tower, then the news of the plane that hit the Pentagon, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, and the search of rubble with no rescue. Though I have visited Auschwitz and Maidanek without crying, in this setting the message from a flight attendant on Flight 93 moved me to tears.