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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Alice Greenwald.
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She has been working in museums for more than 30 years. And since 2017, Alice Greenwald has been president and chief executive officer of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. But since 2006, she served as executive vice president and director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing the development of a founding vision for the museum, managing its programming, preparing exhibits, choosing artifacts, and designing the museum's educational components. The creation of a memorial to the events of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 gave rise to hundreds of difficult, often painful, and sometimes controversial questions that Alice Greenwald had to negotiate. But this wasn't her first time dealing with such sensitive issues. Before joining the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Greenwald served as associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Recently, Alice Greenwald was on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington where she gave a lecture about the challenges of creating the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It was part of IU's 11th Annual Themester, this time exploring the theme, ‘Remembering and Forgetting.” While she was here, Alice Greenwald joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios. Alice Greenwald welcome to Profiles.
ALICE GREENWALD: Thank you.
AARON CAIN: I wanted to ask you first what your earliest memory of a memorial was. Is there one that you visited when you were younger that made an impression? What did you take away from that first experience if you can recall it?
ALICE GREENWALD: That is so interesting. You know, when you asked that question what comes to mind are cemeteries and battlefields. My dad was a World War II vet, and we would make the family trips to Gettysburg and things like that. And that was part of the family experience. And he also loved going to the old cemeteries in New England where you would have the ship captain and the seven wives (laughter). So when you say memorial, it's so funny, that's what first comes to my mind honestly.
AARON CAIN: What impressions did that leave when you were young and you're visiting there? Was it just a destination that you'd go as part of vacation or was there something more?
ALICE GREENWALD: There were stories that were being told in these places. You know, I mean, you weren't just looking at something. You were imagining—particularly on the battlefields—who was there, what was there. So, there was a very personal aspect to it that stayed with me and has certainly informed the way I think of memorial museums.
AARON CAIN: And that imagination that you'll go to a place and that there's so much that you don't see.
ALICE GREENWALD: Yes.
AARON CAIN: And yet that's precisely the point, I suppose. Now, some of your earliest work with museums right after college at the Spertus Museum in Chicago and then the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, your degree in the history of religions from the University of Chicago Divinity School and your degree with concentrations in English literature and anthropology from Sarah Lawrence College certainly seemed to be ideal training for this early work and museum curation. But how early on did you know that was the field that you want to pursue? What pulled you in that direction?
ALICE GREENWALD: Well, I didn't know, and I wasn't in my mind training for a museum career. When I graduated Sarah Lawrence, I did go to the University of Chicago Divinity School to study the history of religions because there was a professor there that I was interested in, Mircea Eliade. And I was fascinated in what used to be called comparative religion. I was interested in ritual and mythology and how that creates stories that give meaning and the activities, the ceremony that gives meaning to communities. Got to graduate school. And the professor I wanted to study with went to emeritus that fall. So I sort of found myself in a discipline that was going through a change. And I wasn't getting what I had come there for. I got a lot out of it, certainly a tremendous amount out of it. But it didn't feel like a good fit. And I had to write a paper in a course on some obscure topic in 16th-century central European women's Jewish literature. And the university at that moment did not have a Jewish studies program, which they do now. And the professor said, “you know, there's a small college of Judaica in the loop in Center City, Chicago. Go up there. I'm sure they'll have what you need.” So, you know, I trundle up to South Michigan Avenue. And I get to the building. And I noticed on the ground floor a very sweet little Jewish Museum. And I thought, well, that's lovely. And I went upstairs to the library and got my materials. And in the elevator, I literally pressed the button that said administrative offices for the museum. And on almost a lark, you know, I found the director's office. I knocked on the door. I poked my head in. And I said something like, “do you need a research assistant this summer?” And he said, “we absolutely do.” I mean, it was that simple. You know, I mean, I don't think that would happen today. I don't know. It was so strange. And I had this summer job now in a museum, and it was a revelation to me. I loved it. I loved everything about the environment. I loved the fact that you were working in historical documents and research and artifacts and you were doing the academic work. But then you were packaging it in a very different way from the academic world. And it was visual. And it was sensory. And you were writing so that the most number of people could know what you were talking about as opposed to what I was doing at the University of Chicago, which was writing on obscure topics that maybe two people in the world would be able to converse with me about. So there was something about the active public learning of the museum and the three-dimensional quality of it. It just wasn't only words on paper. It was all of the senses. And I loved it. So that was the beginning of my awareness that this might be an environment that I liked. And I continued on with my studies. I got my M.A. I began my PhD coursework. And one spring day, I went in for my Thursday afternoon hours at the museum to do my - I kept working there during the academic year because I liked it. It was really the thing I liked most. So I kept going. And the curator at the time, I remember, turned to me and said, “oh, you know, I keep forgetting to tell you. About six weeks ago, I had a call from so-and-so out in LA. And she's looking for a curatorial assistant. And did I know anybody? And you know, I would of course recommend you but you're going to finish your PhD.” And this was a light bulb moment for me. You know, I mean, I've had very few of them in my life, but this was one. And I turned to her and I said, “Grace, do you still have her number?” And I called. I went out for an interview. And that was that. I got this job. And that began my museum career. I thought I was coming back to grad school. And in the end, I stayed six years at this lovely Jewish Museum. At the time, it was at USC but the Skirball Museum.
AARON CAIN: I want to pack up and just sort of highlight something that you said, because - this choice that you had to pursue the PhD to commit fully to a career in museum. You mentioned packaging the resource that these museums had to offer, the ability to transmit that valuable information to many, many, many people instead of three or four academics that you were writing for in academic language. You have the benefit of hindsight now. But at that point, was that any part of your calculus when you made that decision? Or was it just kind of the love of the resource, the love of the tactile aspect of a museum?
ALICE GREENWALD: You know, I think it was the latter. I was feeling…less satisfaction. I had always been a good student, and I had always loved studying. And I had always assumed I would go on to a teaching career at the university level. I had a fellowship for that purpose. I mean, this is what I thought I would be doing. And I had to wrap my head around the fact that I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. And the contrast between that and just how good the museum environment felt it was as simple as that. It wasn't a conscious choice to move out of the academic career track and into the museum career track. It just was: I wanted to do something I liked.
AARON CAIN: You are now president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. And when you're first chosen to guide that memorial and museum into existence, you gave an interview to The New York Times. And in the resulting article, one of the concerns that folks involved in the downtown rebuilding effort gave voice to was that the site would end up becoming primarily a visitor center with some 9/11 specific exhibits. And in response, you said that, no, you don't think of museums just as places that hold artifacts. So, speaking broadly, then, how do you think of museums? What should they be?
ALICE GREENWALD: Well, there are different types of museums. Of course, you have an art museum. You have a history museum, science museums. And the field that I have become a part of for the last, well, over 33 years, is memorial museums. And in memorial museums, you are doing several things simultaneously. You are telling the story of what you're commemorating. You are honoring the people you are commemorating. And you're giving the visitor a space in which to process the emotions that one has when confronting these stories of tremendous loss. Full sensory environments in which stories unfold. The two museums that I have been a part of that are memorial museums, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. and now the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, these are both institutions that characterize themselves as storytelling museums. We tell stories as a way of connecting the visitor to the human experience of history. We don't tell history from a sort of historian's vantage point. We bring you into the story so you can experience it and connect to the human dimensions of the experience of historical event. So, the museum is not the historians view of 9/11. It's the human experience of that particular history.
AARON CAIN: This takes me back to the first memory you related of going to cemeteries and going to battlefields. Do you feel that that aspect of storytelling has grown since then? Is that something that is evolved in the history of the memorial museum?
ALICE GREENWALD: Yes, absolutely. You know, when the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. opened in 1993, the director at the time, a man by the name of Shaike Weinberg who I think of as my mentor, he came. And he really understood the power of personal narrative and of constructing a story. He had actually come out of theater. The man had a fascinating career. He was the theater director in the Municipal Theater in Tel Aviv. He was very familiar with early computer science. And he kind of put those two things together to create a museum that, when it opened, was unlike any other museum in the world at that time. He'd also been a museum director of a place called Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv; the Museum of the Diaspora, which, when it opened, had no artifacts. It was theatrical sets and computer stations. And people said, “this is crazy. How can you call that a museum? There's no artifact.” It was an immersive experience. And he was very ahead of his time in terms of the idea of engaging the visitor with history in a way that asks them to ask the questions in order to get the answers. And so when the Holocaust Museum opened, it was a museum that told a story in a very immersive way. And it was novel. It was surprising, and it was incredibly effective. So when I approached the project in New York, so many of the lessons I had internalized in the process of developing the Holocaust Museum in D.C. really applied to the work we had to do in New York. This would be a storytelling museum.
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Alice Greenwald, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and former associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Your area of emphasis is English literature and anthropology. You received that from Sarah Lawrence College. That's where you went. And that's also where you went back in 2007 to give the commencement address. Now a few years ago, NPR selected that commencement address as one of its best speeches ever. Did you know that?
ALICE GREENWALD: Oh, my goodness. No, I didn't know that.
AARON CAIN: Yes, you're on the board. I found this out. So it's one of the best speeches ever...
ALICE GREENWALD: That's very interesting.
AARON CAIN: ...Says NPR. And in that you said a lot of things. One of the things that you said was that you've devoted your professional life to the darker chapters of history, which is something you've just alluded to. But another that you talk about is the morality of memory. And you quote a teacher of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, John K. Roth who has written a great deal about what he calls the ethics of memory. He said that without memories we could scarcely be moral creatures because we wouldn't be able to identify each other as people or even make connections on which we could base any sort of a moral decision. And he's gone on to cite Elie Wiesel, who says, “if we stop remembering, we stop being.” He even included a very sobering analogy about Alzheimer's and how much we dread losing a memory. And so, as if you don't have enough of a feeling of weight and responsibility in your work, since you have devoted your professional life to the darker chapters of history, could you speak for a bit about the morality of memory?
ALICE GREENWALD: Absolutely. I think it's at the heart of my understanding of the work that we do in memorial museums. Morality wouldn't exist without empathy. Empathy is what creates a sense of a moral structure in one's personal life and in communal life. And how do you develop empathy if you don't remember what happened to you? You can't. The idea of remembering is absolutely the prerequisite for having a sense of how you should treat other people. I grew up in a Jewish context. And in Jewish tradition, you remember in order to learn how to be the right kind of human being. So, the 631 commandments that you're supposed to remember, if you can, is to teach you constantly how you should behave. And when you think of something like the Passover Seder where you read the same story over and over again, every year, year after year, never changed. Story’s always the same. And you literally are eating the foods that are internalizing the memory. That's how it's being taught. The reason for remembering the history is to teach the youngest members of the tribe, if you will, the kind of people you expect them to be. And so when you look at the laws in Judaism and the constant refrain, “you were slaves in Egypt so be kind to the widow and the person who has no money and leave the gleaning of your harvest. Don't clean it up because somebody needs that. Remember: you were a slave in Egypt. Remember: you were a stranger.” So, that sense of personal history or, in that case, communal history, becomes the determining factor for how you are to behave as the kind of human being made in the image of God. I mean, if you will. So, without memory we won't be moral creatures because we'd have nothing to base it on. I mean, I poke your eye out. I wouldn't think once about, you know, well that hurt. But if I could imagine it happening to me, I might stop. So, in that passage that you cite with John Roth who's a wonderful teacher and a wonderful writer, the Elie Wiesel quote is to me extremely seminal: “If we stop remembering, we stop being.” And, as you say, Roth goes on to use the Alzheimer analogy, and there is this sense that when we can't remember our lives then we cease to exist. If you extend that from the personal Alzheimer analogy to a communal scale, if a community, if a nation, if the world doesn't remember certain things, then they are diminished human beings, too. That's the starting point, for me, of the work we do in memorial museums. We are here to attest to a human tragedy that was perpetrated by human beings. Wasn't a tsunami. These were human beings who made the decision to do something that would have an impact on other human beings. And the experience of the human beings it impacted. And to build a sense of personal recognition that, “oh, that could have happened to me.” And what does that mean once you internalize? When you see yourself in someone else's story, it changes the way you are in the world. And I think that that is really what is at the heart of these projects.
AARON CAIN: In all of your work with the Holocaust Museum, with the September 11 Memorial and Museum, there's another aspect of this that you must have come up against, which is the inability to separate the pain of these tragedies that you say are perpetrated by people, the pain of remembering them. Have you received resistance? Pushback? Have there been times when people either as a group or just as an intimation have said, “no, I don't want to remember this, it hurts too much?”
ALICE GREENWALD: It's interesting. There's a spectrum of response. You have the people who are most closely impacted by these events. In the case of 9/11, family members of the people who were killed on the day of the attacks, or as a result of what happened on the day of the attacks. This would happen in the early years when we were planning the museum. They would come up to me, and it was like, “don't whitewash this story. Tell it like it was. The world needs to know what happened.” That kind of emphasis on absolute accuracy and not being careful about what you show, show everything no matter how horrible it is. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, you would have people who - and understandably so - never wanted to see the face of the perpetrator. The very idea that the museum might show you who did this was anathema. And I could understand both perspectives. So, part of the challenge is negotiating through those extremes and creating an experience that is both sensitive and reverential of the people who were killed and the families who suffer their losses, but also tells the story of what happened in an unvarnished way but a careful way.
AARON CAIN: The concept of 9/12, the importance of 9/12. How much of a guiding force was that as you said about constructing a memorial to 9/11?
ALICE GREENWALD: Seminal. Core. Absolutely. It was critical in our minds. You know, my personal 9/11 experience, I was in D.C. My husband was on a train to New York City, and the train was stopped outside of Philadelphia and nobody was telling them why. And he had a meeting at 10:00 in Manhattan and was frantic and he called me and said, “let me know what's happening. Turn on the TV.” And of course, I turn on the TV and watch with two billion other people in the world what was happening. That is an accurate number by the way. It's estimated that a third of the world's population was watching these events unfold in real time or in the endless repetition of the visuals and the narrative throughout that day. It's unprecedented moment of collective global witness to a single event, never had happened in human history before. But my real 9/11 story happened a month later. We were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. We had made plans for months earlier to go to a fancy restaurant in New York. But it was the first time driving up from D.C. that I saw the skyline of Lower Manhattan from the New Jersey Turnpike without the towers. And while I had intellectually processed what had happened, it was a punch to the gut to just look there and they weren't there. And it made the reality, the enormity of the tragedy really visceral for me, really real. We go through the Lincoln Tunnel. And we get to the Manhattan side. And there are the firefighters. And they've got boots. And they're collecting money for the widows and the kids, the orphans. That took my breath away. I mean, again, another level of the human impact of this event. You think you understand the world and what's happening, but it's only when you see the people that it affected that it really becomes personal. And we get into the city. And it's empty. I mean, I grew up on Long Island. I've been in the city a million times before October 10, 2001. I had never seen the city empty. It was a ghost town. And we pull up to the plaza. And the doorman hugged us because nobody was coming to the city, nobody was staying. They were so happy we were there. So we go to dinner. The tables are packed into this room and there's maybe an inch between each table. And in a normal New York scenario, you would be seated at your table and you would not even acknowledge the people who are an inch away from you. You'd be talking to the person across from you in very hushed tones, and all that. We walked into a room where everybody was talking to everybody else. The busboy over there was talking to the person at the front table. And the people up here were talking to people across the room. It was noisy, and cacophony, and this sense of connectedness. And we were - it was stunning. And we sat down at our table. And the person at the next table said, “where are you from? Why are you visiting?” I mean, it was just immediately. There was this palpable change in New York City, which, as I've talked to people about my experience, wasn't a unique experience. Certainly in the days after 9/11 and the weeks and several months after 9/11, the city was a place where there were no distinctions. It didn't matter what borough you were from or the color of your skin or - you were a human being. And they were, we were all in it together. That sense of community was profound. And eventually it dissipates. Eventually things go back to normal. We turn our focus to other things. But I never forgot that moment. And that for me was 9/12. That sense of connectedness and compassion. We squandered that gift, I have to say, because I think it was a moment of rare humanity that was being lived out every day. And we need to get back there. When I took this job, I brought to it two sets of things. One was all of the learning I had done on the job at the Holocaust Museum over a period of almost 20 years where, you know, I understood the questions that needed to be asked. As you create a museum like this, I was hypersensitive to the concerns of various stakeholders and constituents, family members, the people, the first response agencies, people who were so close. I understood that because we had dealt so closely with survivors and their needs. And so I understood the mechanics, if you will, of creating a museum like this. But I think I also brought that October 10 memory with me, which was always in my mind as - and I hesitate to use this word - but the lesson for me of 9/11, the lesson was 9/12. And what I've come to understand is that we know that human beings have the capacity to do absolutely terrible things to one another. And try as we might, people with the means and the methods and the motivation to do evil will sometimes succeed. That's the reality of human life. We may not be able to prevent that. The only thing in our control is how we respond. And 9/12, for me, was the epitome of the best of human responses. That is very much at the heart of what I want a visit to this museum to stay with people; to be about.
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AARON CAIN: Alice Greenwald, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.
For those of our listeners who have not yet visited - and I must confess I'm one of those people, I have not yet had the opportunity to go - would you mind taking a little time to guide us on a brief audio tour? Because so much went into the design of the spaces there. If you could just walk us for a bit through the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, what do we find when we arrive?
ALICE GREENWALD: Well, you start on the plaza first, and that is the memorial itself, which are these two acre-sized voids that sit within the footprints of the Twin Towers. And water falls, first 30 feet, and then it pools and falls once again into a center void, where the water just falls down the walls almost like tears on a face. That's the best way to describe it. But it disappears. You can't see the bottom, and it's as if there's a bottomless loss - an eternal loss. And it's also the inverted verticality of - these incredibly tall buildings have now been turned downward into this emptiness. Around the pools are the names of the people killed on 9/11, organized not alphabetically but by affinities - by who they were with and where they were on that day. So, if you were working in Tower One or onboard Flight 11. On the south pool, we have everyone who was in Tower Two, Flight 175, Pentagon, Flight 77, Flight 93. But the decision was made to put all of the first responders together in their units in their firehouses together on the south pool. The architect, Michael Arad, who worked with Peter Walker - Peter Walker did the landscape architecture and Michael was the visionary of the pools - he wanted to take that idea of affinity one step further and he proposed something called meaningful adjacencies. And we went out to all of the family members - family members of nearly 3,000 people and asked them, “was there someone you wanted your loved one's name to be next to in these affinity groups?” An example would be a family travelling together on the flight where the husband and wife may have had different last names. If this had been alphabetical, those people would not have been together. But by creating an affinity group, they could be side by side. Another example is a very poignant one - a New York family - two sons were killed on 9/11. One was a firefighter, John Vigiano Junior, and his brother Joe Vigiano was a police officer. Well, by virtue of the affinity groups of FDNY and NYPD they would not be together. But if you end the FDNY with John and begin the NYPD with Joe, they're side by side. You move from the plaza into the museum. And from the outside, you see this atrium building which is not very large. You see through the glass of the atrium these two large pieces of steel called tridents - huge pieces of structural steel, about 80 feet - eight stories worth of steel, and these are remnant pieces from the exterior structure of the north tower. And they are there to signal the counterpoint - the complimentary nature of memorial and museum. The memorial is all about absence. It was called Reflecting Absence. And in fact, the names of the victims are literally stenciled out of the bronze so that, at night, light will shine up through the negative space. It's literally reflecting the absence of the people - the absence of the buildings. The museum is about presence. It's about what remains to tell the story - the artifacts, the recordings, the physical remains of the World Trade Center - all of that is inside the museum. And we occupy the cavity of the foundation of the World Trade Center. So as you go down, the primary pathway is a ramp. The architects of the below-ground museum, Davis Brody-Bond, wanted very much for visitors to have a kind of progressive experience moving into this enormous space and allow you to get a sense of the space in pieces. Like, you wouldn't understand how big a space you were in immediately. It was a revelation after a revelation after a revelation. So you moved down a ramp, and the ramp itself has a historical illusion because at the World Trade Center site there was always a construction ramp in the days when it was under construction in the '60s. And then after 9/11 there was a construction ramp put into haul the debris out. But that route - that ramp was also the way in for family members of victims and dignitaries to pay respects in the early years after the attack. So, by using a ramped descent, they were basically saying, “you too are coming here to pay respects,” and it does create a kind of immersion as you move into this museum. And we start with a very simple idea, which is if two billion people watched this event happen for a fair period of time, we can assume that the majority of people coming in will have that memory of their own. And so we knew intuitively that we couldn't be that conventional museum voice that says, “I am the expert and I'm going to tell you what you need to know.” They're the experts. They lived it.
AARON CAIN: They're the authorities.
ALICE GREENWALD: They're the authorities. So why not affirm that? So you move into this ramp. There's a large very beautiful photograph of lower Manhattan, across the East River, the Twin Towers, gorgeous blue sky. It looks like any picture postcard you would have seen before 9/11. And what makes this particular image distinctive is when it was taken. It was taken exactly 15 minutes before the first impact at 8:46 - it was around 8:30 a.m. And it's clearly the threshold of the world before. And you move into a space where you see a global map. And as you move towards the map, you hear voices, and the voices are of people remembering where they were when they heard about 9/11. And the voices are in, I think, 24 languages. They're from people around the world. And you hear this - the map actually fractures into six panels that you move in and out of. So it's as if the world fell apart and you have all of these voices of shock and grief and disbelief. It's global witness to this event. And then you move beyond that and there are images of actual witnesses. And the positioning of the primary witness and each image - the eyes don't move. The images change, but the eyes stay in the same place. The messaging is subliminal. It's basically that it didn't matter where you were, we were all watching the same thing. We were all witnesses. And then you, the visitor, becomes a witness at one of those three sites because you move into this space that opens up into what is the largest area at what we call bedrock, seven stories below ground - 70 feet below ground, which is called Foundation Hall. And you are seeing the remnant foundational structure of the World Trade Center, the slurry wall. You're seeing what is known as the last column, which was the last piece of steel brought out of the site.
AARON CAIN: And it was highly decorated.
ALICE GREENWALD: Highly decorated. It's got inscriptions and missing posters and Mass cards. And, you know, it was a totem pole for the recovery workers. And you understand at that moment that you're not in a conventional museum that is a - you know, a box containing artifacts. You're actually in the artifact. The museum is housed within the artifact of the slurry wall, which was the original retaining wall built at the World Trade Center site when the site was first excavated in the '60s to build the World Trade Center. So you continue down the ramp. And you begin to see a narrative that is first a remembrance of buildings that were here and are no longer here. And then missing posters begin to project in front of you, and it's the heart of the matter - people who were here and are no longer here. And, of course, those missing posters started with sincere hope that one's family member would be found, that maybe they were disoriented and in an emergency room somewhere, had lost their memory, and that we will find them. And within 24 hours, those posters, which were everywhere - they were all over the city, on every surface imaginable - they became memorials. The last person to be rescued alive from the debris - that rescue happened at about 12:30 in the afternoon of September 12. So that was that. Not that they didn't keep looking and searching, but it was clear fairly quickly that these people would not be found. So then you move to a second overlook, and you're looking at a space called Memorial Hall, which is the space between the two tower footprints. Now, you're at the foundation level. You're about to go down to the foundation of the World Trade Center. And if you remember, the pools sit exactly in the footprints of the Twin Towers. So the structure that contains the pools is literally sitting above. It's as if it penetrated into the cavity you're in, sitting above the actual footprint of the south and north towers. We call them volumes. They're like the memory of towers that were there. They're not really the towers, but it's the memory of the towers. And so they're on either side. And when you're standing at this overlook, the south volume is to your right. The north volume is to your left. And you're looking at this enormous wall covered in blue paper tiles - 2,983 of them, which is the number of people that we commemorate. This is the 2,977 killed on Sept. 11 in all three sites and six people killed at the World Trade Center in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That wall created a big problem for us in the planning phase of the museum. There were many challenges we faced. I would have to say the most difficult challenge was a promise that had been made to the family members of Sept. 11 victims in good faith by the governor of the state of New York, Governor Pataki, early on, 2003, where the families - I need to explain this. It's not known widely. But the circumstances of the building collapses at the World Trade Center meant that the human beings in the buildings were essentially pulverized. To this day, 18 years later, 40% of families who lost loved ones in New York City have not received any remains of their loved ones. The medical examiner, the office of chief medical examiner in the city of New York, has maintained a repository of unidentified human remains - 14,000 - and continues with a great deal of commitment to use increasingly precise DNA analysis and other forensic tools to make positive identifications. And periodically - it just happened a couple of weeks ago - you will read in the local paper that a positive identification has been made, and a victim has been returned to their families to provide closure. But the families - this is way back when in 2003 - had requested that the repository not be up at Bellevue Hospital, which is where the medical examiner's office is located, but that they be repatriated to the site - that this is the last place their loved ones were. They wanted them there. And then a second criteria was placed on it because the first design for the memorial in its early emanation had that repository placed on the north footprint. And the family said, “no, no, no, no. That privileges one group of victims over the others. It needs to be not on either footprint. And what we really want is for it to be” - and they called it –“in the embrace of the slurry wall.” They wanted it to be part of the foundation of this site. The only location that met the criteria, all those criteria, was the space that you're now looking at as you look over this overlook into Memorial Hall, where this large concrete wall faces you. That concrete wall separates the public space of the museum from what is now city-owned property, the medical examiner's repository. We don't have access to it. It is not open to the public. It's not a display of the museum. It is the city-owned space. It fulfills this commitment. But in planning the museum, think about it: You're going down this ramp. You're beginning this journey. And you're face to face with this wall, behind which are human remains. And we knew instinctively that that was going to be a difficult thing to process in this already emotionally-charged space. We knew this was going to be an issue, and we needed something to mediate the visitor experience in this location in the museum, which is at the start of their journey into this bedrock space, which is where our exhibits are. And we went through a number of design studies, and nothing was really working. And we came up with this beautiful quote from Virgil's Aeneid. And, of course, Virgil, you know, goes into the underworld with Dante in the Inferno. You remember that? So it seems like there's something very meaningful there, that you're moving underground into this experience so that you can come up again. And the quote was, “no day shall erase you from the memory of time.” And our lead designer at the time, Tom Hennes - brilliant guy - suggested that we find an artisan blacksmith in New Mexico by the name of Tom Joyce to take Remnant World Trade Center steel and forge the letters out of the remnant steel. And in re-forging and firing this steel, it turns this beautiful almost iridescent blue. And the power of taking something that is the remnant of destruction and turning it into something beautiful seemed very much in line with the whole messaging of the museum - that there was the potential for transformation through remembering. So we put these letters up - and, you know, these are design studies now - and bring them to our stakeholders who are providing us with all kinds of reaction and feedback. We have a large group of people that we would test things with - family members and first responders and landmark preservationists and government people. It was a large group of people. And we started to get feedback. Everybody loved the quote, and everybody loved the meaning of the re-forged steel. But we started to get pushback from family members who said, “look - if my loved one is behind that wall, the quote is great, but it's still a very big, ugly, raw concrete wall, and doesn't my loved one deserve something more dignified?” Finally, one of our advisers brilliantly suggested, you know, the only thing that's going to work here is a work of art. And we then proceeded to invite - I think it was seven artists - to submit ideas. Four of them declined. They did not want to take this on. We got three very powerful designs, and we chose the one that is on view. Spencer Finch, an artist based in Brooklyn, who started with light projections and then morphed as he got into the subject matter into a devotional act for him. He wanted to hand-paint these 2,983 watercolor squares, each of them representing one of the people that were being commemorated. And, of course, the paper itself is significant because all of the paper that...
AARON CAIN: Right.
ALICE GREENWALD: ...Flooded out of the building, the paper that the missing posters were put on - he did not want this to be ceramic. He wanted it to have the fragility of the paper. And he did something very unusual - very typical of Spencer, but very unusual. He used a spectrometer, and he figured out how to make each tint of blue ever so slightly different so that while you're looking at a mosaic that is a unified field of blue, each component of the mosaic is unique. And he's communicating that all of these people will forever be connected by the circumstances of their deaths, but we cannot forget that they were unique individuals. Each was different from the other. Each was special. But then he turns it on you, the viewer. And he titles the piece, "Trying to Remember the Color of The Sky on That September Morning." So he is saying to each of us, “my memory of that blue sky may not be the same as your memory of that blue sky. But we all have the obligation to remember.” And it just was the perfect complement. So that blue wall surrounds the Virgil quote. It is extraordinarily powerful. It has become the most photographed part of the museum. It's amazing. People always want to be photographed in front of it. But it's just the poetry of what is presented there. So then you go down to your final destination, which is what we call bedrock, or the foundation level. But as you go down, you either go down by escalator or stair alongside another historic remnant of the site, which is the Survivors Stairs, more formally known as the Vesey Street Stair Remnant. Now, this set of stairs is not in its original location. It was originally on the north side of what was called Tobin Plaza. And on Sept. 11, the Vesey Street stair quarter and the escalator beside it became a route to safety for hundreds of people, particularly after the collapse of the South Tower. When the South Tower collapsed, there was no way to run off the plaza going south. Everything was an enormous dust cloud and debris everywhere, and you couldn't go that way - and flames everywhere. So the only way out was north. And so this became a route of safety for so many. And during the recovery, recovery workers were getting everything. They were taking everything off the site. And they started chipping away at these granite stairs. And at some point, the Port Authority, which owns the World Trade Center site - someone there said, “you know, there's a switching station underneath those stairs. We can use that for storage. We're going to rebuild. We're going to need places to put all the equipment and, you know, and stuff that we're using. Let's just keep it there.” And there was a bureaucratic decision. It wasn't a preservation decision. But the result was that when the 16-acre site seven story down was completely cleared of debris, the last standing above-ground vestige of the original World Trade Center was the Vesey Street stairs, or the remnant of it. Almost immediately, it became a cause celebre for two groups of people - landmark preservationists, who felt that it needed to be preserved, and the community of people who survived by evacuating, the evacuees - which, depending on which concentric circle you're using, is anywhere from 25 to 50,000 people.
AARON CAIN: It was their lifeline.
ALICE GREENWALD: Yeah. This was their story. And so these two groups wanted this stair remnant preserved and ultimately a decision was made to move it from where it was located but to place it in the museum as an artifact of the museum. This was an amazing process. They literally had to take the trays and the steps and skive them off the base and build a new structure, cradle it in the structure, and then move it around lower Manhattan, bring it in by crane into this seven-story hole. We built the museum around those stairs because there would have been no way to bring them in the front door or even a freight elevator. It was - they're just enormous. But you move down past the stairs, which are pristine on top and messed up below, not by the attack but by the recovery, because they were going to be taken away. And you move down to bedrock in the direction of survival. And you arrive in Memorial Hall - the big blue wall. The Virgil quote is in front of you. To the right is the South Tower footprint. To the left is the North Tower. If you think of the foundation space as bifurcated north-south, everything to the south is what I would call age-appropriate. We have our memorial exhibit, which commemorates each of the people who were killed on 9/11 and in 1993 and it's very personal and very much about the lives these people lived, not how they died - the humanity of them. We have a corridor that is filled with tribute art - everything from quilts to motorcycles that have been created in tribute to people who were killed or to provide comfort to their loved ones. We have a changing exhibit gallery that presents material from the recovery on. We, right now, have a beautiful exhibit of tintype photographs by an artist named Melissa Cacciola who did portraits of the Mohawk Indian ironworkers - Native American iron workers from upstate New York and Canada who contributed to the building of the World Trade Center. They're known as Skywalkers because they have absolutely no fear of heights and they would sit on rafters, you know, 110 stories above the ground and have no fear whatsoever. It's a unique skill. But the grandfathers who built the World Trade Center in the '60s - their sons and grandsons came back to participate in the recovery and the rebuilding of One World Trade and some of the other buildings on the site. So it's this lovely homage to the builders, the Skywalkers. There's a wonderful 10-minute time lapse immersive theatre called "Rebirth at Ground Zero" created by a brilliant filmmaker, Jim Whitaker, and an organization called Project Rebirth, which takes you from the end of the recovery in time lapse photography to the building of One World Trade. So the empty site and then the rebuilding, with the narration being people who have gone on a similar journey of absence to renewing their life. It's a very hopeful, beautiful poem of a film.
(SOUNDBITE OF JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON’S “GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT”)
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Alice Greenwald, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and former associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
You closed your commencement speech in 2007 at Sarah Lawrence with a charge to the graduating students, and you told them to find courage and the competency to look at your world through a different lens and maybe even to polish the view for others. Polishing the view for others seems to me a good description of your work, but it also seems to be fraught with so much responsibility. So, how do you keep that responsibility from intimidating you into an action? Where do you find the courage?
ALICE GREENWALD: That's a great question. I feel privileged. I mean, honestly. There's always the stuff at work that makes you crazy and frustrates you and, you know, makes you anxious. But I have to say, on an almost daily basis something happens where you realize you're touching people in profound ways, and I think that keeps all of us going. It's a mission. We say, and I have said many times, that it is by bearing witness to unimaginable things that you can imagine a way beyond them. Horrible things happen, and we can let them paralyze us or we can use what we learned from those experiences to make us more compassionate, more empathetic, understand things more deeply. And I do believe that that is what you need to do. Right after the terrible, terrible Valentine's Day massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we received a note that members of the marching band who had been invited months before to perform at Carnegie Hall with a group of other high school marching bands - that they had determined that they would come. That they thought about it, they talked about it. Obviously, it was a very difficult time in that community. One of their band members was killed. Another had an uncle who had been a recovery worker at Ground Zero and had subsequently recently died of 9/11-related illness from inhaling the toxic air. And they made the decision they would come. And they wanted to come to the museum as part of their visit, and could we arrange a tour for them? Obviously, we were all still reeling from the news of what had come out of Parkland. And we decided that we would provide the tour, obviously, but that we would bring this group of young people into the Museum auditorium for a conversation with some of our board members who themselves were family members who had lost loved ones. And one of our trustees - Howard Lutnick, who is president, chairman and CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald - Cantor lost the largest single number of employees in one company on Sept. 11 - they occupied the top floors of One World Trade. He lost his brother. He lost his best friend. He lost almost his entire community. I mean, it was a trauma like you cannot imagine. And Howard greeted these young people - and I'm sitting there watching this happen. He looked at them, and he started off by saying something like, “I know just how you feel, and I wish to hell I didn't.” He had them at that moment. He understood them. They understood him. And he went on to talk about what he lost, who he lost, what that meant for his life and how hard it was to normalize and to come back. And he said, “you know, when I get up in the morning, I imagine myself on a surfboard, and behind me is an enormous wave. And I know if I don't keep looking forward, if I turn around and look back, it will overcome me, and I will drown.” He said, “so I just keep looking forward.” And as if that weren't enough good advice, he turns to them, and he says, “and I'm going to tell you something. People of good intent will come up to you, and they're going to say, ‘time will heal all wounds. You'll get this behind you. You'll be fine.’” He says, “it's not true.” He says, “you're never going to live without this memory. So this is you now. This is your life. You will never not remember that terrible day.” He said, “but because of what you experienced, you will now live your lives at a deeper level of understanding.” At that moment I understood something that I had not crystallized in my own mind before of what the work is of this institution, which is to give people the tools to live lives at a level of deeper meaning by confronting this horrific event 18 years ago or for these young people at Parkland to take what they had experienced, understand that there are people in the world who know what they went through, they're not alone. But you can make something of that horrible experience and give something back to the world. That was the most empowering message they could have heard. The purpose of this place is so profound because it is an opportunity to confront the worst of our human nature against images and narratives and stories of the best of who we are. Our museum is as much about 9/12 as it is about 9/11. 9/12 was that coming together, that sense of public service, the “what can I do to make it better, how can I help?” All of those responses - the volunteerism, people who went down to provide relief, to help the relief workers, to do whatever they could at Ground Zero - all of that feeling of community, of shared responsibility to one another, short-lived as it may be now from a perspective of 18 years, is profound because it's a signal of what we're capable of. And it shouldn't take an event like 9/11 to get us to show it. Understanding that you can't understand the value of that response without first understanding what it was a response to - that's how we become better human beings.
AARON CAIN: Alice Greenwald, thank you so much for your amazing work. And thank you for speaking with me on Profiles.
ALICE GREENWALD: My absolute pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON’S “FLIGHT FROM THE CITY”)
AARON CAIN: Alice Greenwald, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Alice Greenwald was on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington, to give a lecture about the challenges of creating the museum as part of IU's eleventh annual Themester: “Remembering and Forgetting.” I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, wfiu.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)