Real Things and Difficult Heritage: The 9/11 Memorial Museum and Sharon Macdonald's Lunchtime Seminar on National Socialist Documentation Centres in Nuremberg and Munich

This week, on 21 May 2014, the National 9/11 Memorial Museum will open to the public for the first time, 13 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Built on Ground Zero, the place of the tragedy, the museum aims to tell the stories of what happened there in 2001. A virtual exploration of the museum's architecture can be seen on the Guardian website. Already causing controversy in the press for several reasons including the (in)appropriateness of the things available for sale in its gift shop (for example see 'popular press' reports in the Daily Mail and New York Post), and also its widely reported controversial storage of human remains from those still missing, the Memorial Museum is of course in line for much further discussion and debate once its doors are open and visitors begin to engage fully with the site, its collections and its meanings, both in the present and for the future.
On the museum's website, its Director Alice Greenwald states: "where most museums are buildings that house artefacts, this Museum has been built within an artefact". That this building is an artefact, itself filled with hundreds of other artefacts, reflects the organisation's aspiration to be both immense, yet also intimate, both a museum and a memorial. Of the 10,000 objects collected after 9/11, 800 of them will be on display in the Memorial Museum.
Collections are largely drawn from two distinct categories. Either they are things found and donated by the families of victims as memorials to those individuals who died during the tragedy, or else they are things that were salvaged in the immediate aftermath from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre (some of which can be seen in these NY Times films including commentary from Chief Curator, Jan Seidler Ramirez, and also on this CNN film).  Straightaway, those working in New York's heritage industries, as well as those involved in the rescue operation, recognised a need to collect. This mass of things, from flowers left at the scene, to 'missing' posters, to personal possessions, to trucks, to structural remains, has come to have symbolic meaning and value, both individually and collectively. All of these objects are real. They have what Walter Benjamin might describe as 'aura'.
In contrast with this visceral need to display the real object, in other 'sites as artefacts', decisions have been made deliberately not to present the public with any 'real' objects. The heritage is just too difficult, and 'museumification' of things too problematic.
At her lunchtime seminar on 14 May 2014,  Sharon Macdonald, Anniversary Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of York and Visiting Professor at the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt University in Berlin, presented us with a fascinating paper entitled '"Nothing Real": Aura, Affect and the Dilemmas of Displaying Nazi Objects', which builds upon her 2009 book, 'Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond'.
In this paper, Sharon presented her most recent field research from Nuremberg's Documentation Centre, undertaken in September 2013, 14 years after her initial work began there in 1999. On this trip, she also went to Munich where a project to develop a Documentation Centre of National Socialism is underway and scheduled to open on the site of the Brown House, the former headquarters of the Nazi Party, in April 2015.
The Munich Centre's founder is architectural historian Professor Winfried Nerdinger. Unlike the situation leading to the collection of thousands of artefacts in post 9/11 New York, Professor Nerdinger is adamant that this Documentation Centre will have 'nothing real' in it: there will be no real objects from the Nazi past at all. It is not a museum. Putting things into a display cabinet, he argues, exalts their status, giving them that mystical aura described by Benjamin in his 1936 essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. And this is entirely inappropriate for a site of Nazi perpetration (compared with that of a site of victims). The site itself is enough. The site of perpetration is the artefact. (This does raise the question though as to the status of the documents being exhibited here: are these not real objects? It will be fascinating to visit this controversial centre once it opens next year.)
Moving to Nuremberg, as in Munich and New York, the vast site itself, the place of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, can also be described as an artefact. Bewildering in its immensity, this is an intimidating space, without intimacy. I got lost wandering around the outside of the building on my visit, and it was terrifying. Again, this is called a Documentation Centre, and not a museum. And here, the aim was, like in Munich, not to have objects. Interpretive text, contextual information and archive photographs form the main component parts, and are woven into the architectural fabric. What few objects there are are sometimes displayed underneath glass in the floor, giving them a 'trampled on' ontological status.
There are not enough staff here to deal with constant object curation; there is no space for storage; there are no policies for collecting. Yet slowly, objects have begun to creep into the building, under the radar, perhaps a 'dirty secret' of the place. The staff offices contain piles of controversial donated objects: copies of right-wing propaganda books fill a shopping trolley, and slowly recent exhibitions are beginning to display these things.
Visitors want to tell their stories. The centre has a duty to document. Staff are increasingly describing their roles as becoming like social workers, giving time to donors, listening to each individual account. How and why has this happened in a space that did not want or should not have objects?
One reason given is that as more and more German families have begun clearing out attics of deceased family members, and dealing with their 'stuff', the problem of what to do with the materiality of the past has become all too apparent. Embarrassed to have any associations with Nazi things, people do not want to put them out with the rubbish for fear of being spotted, yet these things are still historical objects which tell stories, and from which potential lessons can be learnt: not forgotten, never again. Objects breed more objects. Collecting stuff is what people have always done, what they will always do. And giving things to a collective centre perhaps removes some of the individual burden of having too much problematic stuff of one's own.
On my train journey home from Sharon's paper about the materiality of contested and difficult histories, someone had coincidentally left open this article on my seat from the Evening Standard, which made me think of similarities and dissimilarities between the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and those Documentation Centres in Germany. What are these places? Are they 'tombs to the unknown', 'commemorations of the known', 'educational attractions'? What is the role of history, memory, empathy? How does a site of perpetrators differ from that of victims? And what actually is the role of material objects in making meanings from such difficult and traumatic histories?


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