Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lesson ideas: September 11, History & Memory

July 2016 update to original post: Check out this documentary collection from the Library of Congress about 9/11.

Tomorrow will be the first time that the 9/11 museum will be open on the anniversary of the events of 9/11/01. This got me thinking about how differently we view events that we have lived through compared to those we haven't. Depending on the grade you are teaching this fall, your students were either not born, very little or at most five or six years old. But all of their teachers lived though it.

For those of us who are old enough to remember that day, teaching about it is a very different experience than teaching about past American tragedies. It is a far more visceral experience, I think. I remember what I was doing, where I was, how I felt...

But knowing where I was and how I felt is not the same thing as "knowing" all about what happened on September 11 and why. If you heard F.D.R. on the radio on December 8 talking about the previous day's attack on Pearl Harbor, that is not the same thing as understanding Japan's military ascendency in the Pacific or Roosevelt's efforts throughout the late 1930s to open Americans' eyes to the problems in Europe.

So the problems for historians, educators and the museum curators at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum are complex ones which illustrate the potential contradictions between the goals of museums and teachers versus those of memorials. As pointed out by Jim Gardner, the Executive for the Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries and Museum Services for the National Archives, "Museums are about understanding, about making meaning of the past. A memorial fulfills a different need; it's about remembering and evoking feelings in the viewer, and that function is antithetical to what museums do." (Quoted from New York Times article on challenges facing the 9/11 Museum.)

There are many things you could do in class tomorrow to commorate the day. Below is my idea for a class discussion on the ways commemorating 9/11 can get us to think about history and memory in a broader sense. Please note that the lesson has nothing to do with the events of 9/11 itself or why it happened, but rather focuses on how the way we think about 9/11 compares to how we think about other historical events, particularly tragic ones. And how such events should be remembered. Because it doesn't explain 9/11 itself, you may have to provide at least a little background information.

September 11, 2001: Examining History, Memory & Memorials
Note to teachers:
Below are a list of decisions museum curators at the National September 11 Memorial Museum had to make about what to display. Underneath each decision are examples of other related decisions/questions from other historic events. Each of these can be used separately or together as material for whole class or small group discussions. These are designed for 9-12th grade, but with moderate adaptations, could easily used in middle school classrooms as well. If you'd like a GoogleDoc version of this that you can reproduce for students, click here. If you scroll down to the very end of this post, I've linked to some other questions I came up with that might be good as either an intro or conclusion to the ideas below.

The Decisions:

1. Whether or not to include images of trapped victims leaping from the burning towers.

Actual decision made by museum: show photographs, but not video, and only if the person jumping cannot be identified.

Other historic example: In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, 145 people were killed--mostly young, immigrant women. The tragedy brought renewed attention to the problems of factory workers and their safety. The event is recounted in most U.S. history textbooks. Witnesses to the event saw young girls jumping out of the window to their death. Should textbooks or your U.S. history teacher show you images of this or read accounts of it? How is this similar/different from the 9/11 example?

2. Whether or not to include photographs of the hijackers.

Actual decision made by museum: show photographs, but use the evidence photo images from the FBI that have a sticker on them, marking the hijackers as criminals (so they look like criminal mug shots). The size of the image will be 1 ½ X 2 inches each and displayed at a low angle, so visitors can choose whether or not to look at them.

Other historic examples:
Should we read about Adolf Hitler or other Nazi war criminals so as to better understand their motivations? Does doing so humanize them? Does humanizing them seem to “excuse” their crimes? Or does it help us understand what happened? Something in between?

Curators at the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum--the museum commemorating the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building (in which 168 people died) had to make a similar decision about displaying the photograph of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the bombing. They chose to show it.

3. Whether or not to include “composites”--chunks of compressed floors that demonstrate the destructiveness of the impact of the crash into the towers. Family members of victims--many of whose bodies were not recovered--say that such pieces could contain body matter.

Actual decision made by museum: show one of the composites in a secluded alcove in the footprint of the north tower. The composite has been tested and there are no human remains. Nearby is a stand with a box of tissues.

Other historic example:
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The purpose was to establish the rights of Indian tribes to reclaim human remains, sacred objects and other artifacts from federal agencies and museums. How should the interests of researchers and Native Americans be balanced? What about a skeleton that is 10,000 years old? Does that make a difference? See this article for an article from the Huffington Post about the conflict between university researchers and Native Americans. See this article for an interesting example about Indian scalps displayed in a German museum.

Click here for an interactive look at some of the displays in the National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Click here for an article in the New York Post about the gift shop at the 9/11 museum.
Click here for a perspective on visiting the 9/11 museum written by a man who lost his sister in the attacks (You can get a sense of his ironic take from the title: "The Worst Day of My Life is Now New York's Hottest Tourist Attraction"). Click here for an excerpt from that article, along with my suggestions for questions to go along with it that you could use with students.

If you decide to use any of this material, let me know how it goes!

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