Lest we should ever be allowed to forget

Museums used to be a celebration of human achievement. Now they merely peddle misery. Tiffany Jenkins asks why

The National September 11 Memorial site in New York takes up seven and a half acres of some of the most expensive land in the city.

Two 50ft-deep pools, each containing a fountain, surrounded by the names of the victims of the terrorist attacks, are set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Pointing towards the centre of the two voids is a new museum that stretches seven stories below ground, built to house the relics of the dead. The museum pavilion will open to the public next year, but there is a preview. In the lobby, next to a family room for the bereaved, visitors come face to face with two of the original tridents – vast steel columns saved from the World Trade Centre. The twisted, wreckage intended, somehow, to embody hope.

Early galleries show morbid mementos donated by relatives, photographs and testimony, after which a slope will take visitors down into a darkened space. This is dominated by the Last Column, also saved from the Twin Towers, a shrine to the lost lives of close to 3,000 people.

The scale and expense of the project – with costs estimated at $700m (£440m), plus $60 for yearly operations – is remarkable, as is the focus. We are used to discreet memorials to war and human sacrifice, but the past 30 years have witnessed a boom in putting tragedy on a pedestal. Memorial museums are proliferating with countless galleries devoted to the display of death and destruction.

In a study of the phenomena, academic Paul Williams found that more memorial museums opened in the past 20 years than in the previous 100. There are 16 Holocaust museums in the US alone (with plans for more), as well as the museum dedicated to the victims of the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. Then there are scores of institutions that document slavery in America, and genocide in Armenia, Rwanda and the Balkans.

Others show state repression in Eastern Europe, apartheid in South Africa, political "disappearances" in Argentina, massacres in China and Taiwan, and more. Even within old institutions, such as the Natural History Museum in London, there is a memorial, alongside the dinosaurs and beetles, to the victims of the 2006 tsunami.

Traditionally, museums have celebrated human achievement, culture and science. And while these commemorated events are significant, we should question the flourishing interest in death and disaster, to ask why there is a frenzy of exhibiting the tragic moments of human history.

Of course, these institutions justify their work in the language of education. Alice M Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, has claimed: "These exhibits will be an important learning opportunity for people of all ages." But what do we really learn?

Many of these museums have been architecturally designed to manipulate. Daniel Libeskind's design for Berlin's Jewish Museum has passages distorted into slight angles, as if the ensuing destabilisation could hint at the experience of those kept and killed by the Nazis.

The popular phrase is "never again" as if you can prevent bad things from happening by wallowing in the past. The trouble is that the focus on experience, and on the victims – which is the raison d'etre of these kinds of museums, does not allow for complicated reflection. The desperate need for moral certainty does not encourage good history.

Greenwald claims that: "Authentic objects are crucial to understanding the story of 9/11, from the profound loss to the extraordinary heroism."

So they preserve once meaningless artefacts because the have been "touched" by death. the Smithsonian National Museum of American History 2003 exhibition "September 11: Bearing Witness to History", displayed the high-heeled shoes removed by a woman when running down the staircase, as well as her briefcase. I honestly believe seeing these would render the event banal.

Sometimes forgetting is good. It is time to dethrone the monuments to barbarity and showcase a little more civilisation.

Tiffany Jenkins is director of arts and society at the Institute of Ideas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future