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

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker