By Patricia Caso/September 8, 2014
Imagine the challenge of taking one of the world’s most shocking, horrendous events–the tragedy of September 11, 2001–and memorializing it with a compassionate, historical and creative vision. Alice Greenwald was chosen director of this daunting project, to lead the formation of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
“After imagining the living museum in my head, planning every word of text and every design elevation for eight years, seeing it in 3-dimensional reality is still extraordinarily powerful.” Alice Greenwald
On May 21, 2014, the Museum opened to the public. On a perfect, cloudless day recently, much like September 11, 2001, I passed by two thirty-foot waterfalls cascading into pools and descending into a center void, set in the footprints of the original twin towers.
The names of the nearly 3,000 victims are etched in bronze around the pools; some have flowers in them. Once inside the exhibits, I was immersed in a stunning and heartbreaking interactive experience.
Each step along the way put me in that moment of history, hearing the confused voices of loved ones and soon-to-be victims; seeing flashing text messages, a photo taken from outer space and artifacts like the burned out Ladder Company 3 truck.
But it was the wall of faces, the quilts made in memoriam, the conversations of people around me talking about the heroic acts they were also seeing from first responders, doctors and just regular people, that made this place much more than a multimedia history lesson.
After an emotional three hours there, it seemed to me that this museum carefully guides the visitor to conclude that it is in community that the human spirit is at its best and will triumph.
So it was with great interest that got to speak with Alice about her vision for the museum, an artifact itself, and how she produced such an engrossing space…
EYE: This museum is a remarkable balance of tragedy, responsibility and hope. Why is it important to have this kind of memorial?
ALICE: I come from the school of thinking that we have to confront the worst of our nature to understand our potential for the best. The horrific events of that day are not the end of the story. This museum is as much about 9/12 as it is about 9/11. When you have an event that is so defining historically, your first obligation is to teach the next generation.
Already, there are students in middle school who have virtually no memory of this event. Those in elementary school weren’t even born. Yet the world they have inherited has been conditioned, in many ways, by this event. On a more fundamental human level, this wasn’t a tsunami, or natural disaster. It was an event perpetrated by human beings against other human beings.
We need to try to make sense about what would provoke such a horrific act, to understand the dynamic of politics in the world. When you go through a museum like this, you are reminded that no matter how much we try, sometimes terrorists will succeed and we will not always be able to prevent those actions.
“The only thing we ultimately have control over is how we respond when such events happen.”
EYE: What is at the heart of the Museum’s message?
ALICE: 9/11 is a case study in the best of human response, the compassion, the sense of obligation and duty that was demonstrated by the first responders. They knew what they were going up to and they went up as people were going down.
The impulses that we saw time and again over the months of recovery at Ground Zero and the other two sites, were peoples’ need to help, to be there for other people, to do something, the sense of generosity. It was the sense that we are all in this together; we are all related to one another at some fundamental human level.
In the longer aftermath of 9/11, it is the connection between public service, commemoration and remembrance. People have chosen to do things that are constructive in the world in memory of those who were violently taken from us.
That’s really part of the encounter in this museum–what kind of world do we want to leave our children and grandchildren? And, how do we get there?
EYE: Where were you on 9/11?
ALICE: My family and I had just moved to Washington, D.C., four days earlier. I was unpacking moving boxes and had arranged for a carpenter to come in to do some work in the house.
Shortly after 9AM my husband called, frantic because his New York City-bound train was stalled. There was some buzz from passengers that something might have happened at the World Trade Center. Would I turn on the TV?
I turned to the TODAY Show, which was repeatedly showing the imagery of the impact of the second plane.
The carpenter came into the room to see the TV with me because he was totally aghast at what happened. The news of the Pentagon being hit came through.
So then I was very nervous. My daughter was at a school in Washington where many of her classmates had parents who worked at the Pentagon. As I was going through all of that, the news flashed the collapse of the South Tower.
EYE: What was your most vivid memory of that morning?
ALICE: It was the second after watching that on the television. The gentleman who was there measuring, doing carpentry, had never met me. I didn’t know him at all, and we are standing by the TV set hugging. It was the only appropriate reaction at that moment, to connect with another human being.
“We were both in utter shock, distraught over what we had just seen, which seemed so unbelievable and all you could think about were the people, the people, the people. At that moment like everyone else, I went into overdrive.”
I picked up my daughter and was on the phone several times that day with my son who was away at school. My husband finally returned very late. It was a day of complete disorientation, disbelief, horror, confusion and the impulse was very much to be with other people, to have your family around you.
EYE: I read that you wanted to create an emotionally “safe encounter with difficult history.”
ALICE: That was a very big objective for this project. When you are dealing with something traumatic like mass murder and with a subject matter that so many people viewed (an estimated 1/3rd of the world’s population in 2001 watched the events happen on TV), the last thing you want a museum environment to do is traumatize or re-traumatize people or trigger memories that would make them feel uncomfortable.
A lot of attention was paid to empowering our visitors to make choices in the museum about what they would or would not see; to give them opportunities to leave the most difficult parts of the historical exhibition.
For example, if they had too much, the challenge was to carefully structure the layout of the museum so that, unless you’ve elected to go into the more sensitive areas, you don’t see anything that is going to be visually troubling in the open spaces of the museum or outside the historical exhibition.
EYE: Why did you accept such a daunting position to be the Director of the Memorial?
ALICE: Initially, I did not want to take the job. I thought it would be incredibly challenging and difficult in ways, but I wasn’t sure it was even a viable project. Yet, the more I talked to recruiters, the more excited I got about the potential of this project.
I think I recognized at some level the nearly two decades I spent working at the Holocaust Museum in Washington had prepared me in a way that other museum officials might not have been prepared for.
A major concern was how one would go about planning such an institution and have the awareness of the challenges and pitfalls. And, part of this job is really listening hard to the different perspectives of the various constituencies and stakeholders.
EYE: What strikes you when you wander through the exhibit alone?
ALICE: The most acute experience happened shortly before we opened to the public. After imagining the living museum in my head, planning every word of text and every design elevation for eight years, seeing it in 3-dimensional reality is still extraordinarily powerful.
Even though the installations looked exactly the same way they did in the renderings, there was something about the sensory experience of hearing the audio while you’re looking at the imagery, while you’re moving through a space that anticipates the next thing you are going to see.
“To be in the museum and experience those components, not from the point of view of curating them but as a human being experiencing them, was quite emotionally overwhelming for me and incredibly gratifying because it worked.”
EYE: Is there anyone who inspires your vision?
ALICE: My staff inspires me. And, Shaike (Jeshajahu) Weinberg, the Founding Director of Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, was an exceptional director. At his museum he presented this extraordinary amalgamation of theatre and storytelling, as well as phenomenal artifacts and the use of film footage in a way that had not been done before.
I felt like Shaike was giving me a tutorial for life. After spending 19 years on that project, I definitely feel his influence in the way I approached the creative creation of an immersive space that is historically correct but also emotionally compelling.
EYE: Was museum work something you always wanted to do?
ALICE: I think one finds a career somewhat haphazardly or unanticipatedly. I was a graduate student in the History of Religion Department at the University of Chicago, pursuing what I thought would be an academic career and working on my Ph.D etc.
A professor suggested I stop in at Spertus Institute of Judaic Studies to get some needed primary resources. After I’d done my research, I walked through the museum on the ground floor, which I thought was really cool.
I literally knocked on the door of the Director’s office, unannounced, and asked if he needed a researcher for the summer. He said yes! So, I took that job and loved the work.
EYE: So then were you hooked?
ALICE: I continued course work and working at the Museum of Judaica part time and summers. The curator, still a dear friend, said, “Alice, I had a call from the Director of the Skirball Museum out in Los Angeles. They’re looking for a Curatorial Assistant. The only one I know would be you, but I said that you are not going to leave Chicago because you are going to finish your Ph.D.”
“It was one of those moments in life, and I just said, ‘Do you have the number?’ I made the call and that was that. I took the job and I continued to stay in the museum field!”
EYE: In your role, I imagine there are controversial decisions along with creative ones. How do you handle these situations and be an effective director?
ALICE: The key is to understand the mission of your organization. If you are clear about that and you can articulate it for other people, thereby building support and constituency, it makes the job possible.
You have to hire a great staff, making sure the resources are there, both human and financial, to do the work that has to be done. Next, it’s finding the path that’s right for the institution and then making that clear to everyone who is so invested in the project.
EYE: What are your hopes for the legacy of your work and the museum?
ALICE: Museums really should be the public’s environment, the marketplace of ideas and exchange. I would hope that this museum is looked at as a great example of how museums can be powerful places that bring us together as a community, as a world community, as a society.
“We can reflect as human beings about what we can do in the positive for a response to such horrific actions to build the world that we really want to leave our children and grandchildren. That is the 9/11 story.”
EYE: Thank you Alice Greenwald. Your achievement will give generations an opportunity to, as you said, “imagine a way beyond” the inhumanity. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a remarkably gripping encounter with history I won’t soon forget. Click here for more information.
UPDATE 9/8/21: Alice is now President and CEO of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
UPDATE 7/17/16: 9/11 Museum to Open Its First Art Exhibit in September
UPDATE 9/24/15: Pope Francis to Visit 9/11 Memorial and Museum