Visitor Interactivity Becomes Museum Exhibit
Billie J. Jones, Penn State Capital College, USA
Visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History's September 11 (2001) exhibit, which closed on July 6, 2003, were invited to record their memories of September 11 either in writing or in recorded telephone messages. Some of those written messages were displayed in several locations throughout the physical exhibit. All of these memories, written and recorded, will be made available through The September 11 Digital Archive http://911digitalarchive.org, where they join other writings prompted at that site. This intermingling of contributed memories, written texts and recorded messages, left at the physical museum and at the virtual site (not a direct arm of the Smithsonian), provides a rich field for study.
In this paper, I will share a rhetorical analysis of writings left by visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History's September 11 (2001) exhibit, comparing these to memories recorded at the September 11 Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org/). These writings, private memories recorded to become part of public discourse displayed on a museum wall or an Internet site, serve as a memorial to the lives, and a way of life, lost that day. More than words, however, their visual presence and even suppositions as to the writers' exigency(ies), common yet very personal, and purposes for writing/sharing their memories are all fruit for rhetorical study.
Beyond that I will explore the actual shift from the writings being created as a result visitor (physical or virtual space) to the writings becoming artifacts within the exhibit. More than simply an outlet for memories and volatile emotions, the writings become much of the meat in the digital archive, drawing more visitors. This sort of uber-interactivity makes the virtual museum space a constantly evolving exhibit, with visitors having a greater ownership than ever before.
Keywords: rhetoric, guilt, memory, memorial, survivor
Interestingly, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project sponsored study, How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attacks, "The Internet was not a primary source for news or outreach for Americans" in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=45)
In fact the study, which is "based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates between September 12, 2001 and September 13, 2001," reports that, "Only 3% of Internet users say they got most of their information about the attacks and the aftermath from the Internet."
This lack of reliance on the Internet, usually regarded for its immediacy is curious, if not surprising. However, because most television news sources (from which 81% of people reported receiving their news during the immediate aftermath) (http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=45) broadcast live feeds from the scenes, the medium of television offered the most immediacy, with the Internet offering little more than a mimesis of television. Another possible reason for decreased Internet usage as a news source is the need for comfort. As an older medium, many people may have felt more comfortable with the more familiar television -particularly with the greater likelihood of finding others gathered around a television set rather than a computer screen. Americans wanted -in fact needed the comfort of others.
Despite our initial preference, for whatever reason(s), for television as our primary news source about the events of September 11:
[t]here were increases in some online activities in the wake of the tragedy, perhaps the most notable of which was the greater proportion of Internet users posting and reading comments from other Americans about their emotional response to the attacks and the ways America might retaliate. . . . In the 48 hours after the crisis, 13% of Internet users 'attended' virtual meetings or participated in virtual communities by reading or posting comments in chat rooms, online bulletin boards, or email listservs. . . . On a typical day only 4% of online Americans visit chat rooms. After the terror attacks, Internet users were doing everything online from grieving, to comforting each other, to having reasoned discussions about policy options, to having flame wars where emotions ran high and insults were exchanged. Online communities were an emotional, spiritual, cerebral, primal, and sorrowful place for Americans to sort out their feelings and hash out their views.
In the more than two years since those first few days of surveyed Internet usage, Americans have continued to use the Internet to "sort out . . . feelings" and to grieve about the events of September 11, 2001, and doing "grief work" in this new forum is certainly not restricted to the tragedy of September 11. Losses as private as a single pet or loved one to losses of national proportion like the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the recent Operation Enduring Freedom are memorialized on the Internet, which Susan Crane (2000) likens to museums and other "prosthetic cultural devices created to supplement mental memory functions . . . without supplanting them" The Smithsonian National Museum of American History's September 11 Bearing Witness to History exhibit and The September 11 Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org) are both such archival devices. Both begun on September 11, 2002, as part of a commemorative effort on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, these sites, the first primarily a physical-space exhibit and the latter a virtual archive, have attracted large crowds. During the Smithsonian exhibit's "ten-month run, it attracted over a million visitors from across the nation and around the world" (http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/exhibition/index.asp), and the Smithsonian exhibit will expand its place to reach more people as it becomes a traveling exhibit later this year.
The purpose of this paper is two-fold: to analyze some of the writings contributed by visitors to the physical and virtual exhibits, in order to determine the impetus to contribute to the exhibit(s) in such a way and to discuss the effects that soliciting written comment, which becomes contribution, which becomes artifact, has on the virtual exhibit.
(Before beginning, I want to explain my use of the term "Americans." In this paper, I will refer to the American response(s) to September 11, 2001. In the use of that term I am being as inclusive as possible. Rather than defining "Americans" as a specific cultural group or birth-heritage group, I am referring to anyone who identifies themselves as "American," regardless of their birthplace. I also wish to note that I realize that there is no single "American" culture, nor was/is there a singular "American" response to the attacks, but in the use of the term "American" here I am making a generalization for the sake of discussion.)
The Rhetorical Analysis
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, represented a cosmic disjuncture in the world's social order - at least to our Ameri-centric mindset. Considered a world leader (with both positive and negative connotations of that term), America's position of strength and prominence was challenged by the terrorist attacks which resulted in the collapse of the WTC and a portion of the Pentagon, as well as the loss of 3000 American lives. To understand American's response to these attacks, it may be helpful to turn to rhetorician and social critic Kenneth Burke's concept of guilt.
In Permanence and Change, (as well as elsewhere), Kenneth Burke explains the [cycle of] terms: guilt, purification and redemption as representing the effects of acceptance and rejection of hierarchy[ies], [which he considers multiplicitous and inherent in society] . . . (Burke, 1965). (According to Burke, the need to purge oneself of guilt and this cycle, is the root of all rhetoric (http://www.afirstlook.com/manual5/ed5man22.pdf).) ". . . [T]o deal with rejection [of hierarchy] so common in the social drama, Burke suggests [that] society uses two forms of ritual purification, mortification and/or victimage, as a resolution for guilt. [M]ortification, which involves personal sacrifice by the guilty, in which the individual or group experiencing guilt makes a symbolic offering to appease society and thus restore balance and social order. A person accused of wrongdoing acknowledges it publicly and may offer an explanation or perform some act of remorse. [In victimage, on the other hand, guilt is purged] through [the creation of] a scapegoat, [some external agent] that symbolizes guilt (Scott & Brock, 1972). (Samra http://acjournal.org/holdings/vol1/iss3/burke/samra.html)
Guilt then for Burke is a natural outgrowth of disjuncture in the ‘normal’ social order. Some might angrily think it heretical to claim that the American people have responded with guilt to the events of September 11, 2001; however, the Burkean concept of guilt, its motivation to produce rhetoric, and the cycle of guilt-purification-redemption are evident in many of our post-9/11 responses. First of all, Americans reacted quickly with a barrage of rhetoric aimed at restoring their presumed role in the world hierarchy. In fact, some of the earliest rhetoric: signs, slogans, and billboards, passionately declared America's strength, determination, and leader status. The media was flooded with images of that purported strength and superiority. Whether or not our pre-September 11-world view was accurate, our most rapid responses were direct attempts to restore that hierarchy, primarily through scapegoating. (While mortification becomes evident in the writings to be analyzed later in the larger project, accepting self-blame is difficult - along with being undeserved in many instances). Our enemy became the Arab world, and even the most rational individuals were forced to struggle to keep that scapegoat image from growing unchecked and resulting in discrimination toward innocent peoples.
With time, however, America's attempts to purify the guilt felt from that disjuncture of the world order have become somewhat more tempered, more multi-modal and multi-vocal, reflecting a wide range of responses. For example, memorialization can be read as a purifying action seeking redemption, and physical memorials and memorials acts sprang up almost instantly. At the Bellevue Wall of Prayer, "created at the First Avenue and 27th Street entrance to Bellevue Hospital" (http://www.mcny.org/Research/behind/Bellvue/behindbellvue.htm), posters looking for those feared lost in the attack, quickly became memorials to the victims pictured there.
The Wall, actually a construction-site fence, became a spontaneous bulletin board for posting hundreds of fliers with the images of the lost as well as prayers, poems, and statements of support from surviving New Yorkers and others from around the United States and abroad. From September 11 to November 3, the Wall grew to be approximately 200 feet in length
This Wall, once intimately rooted to the scene of the tragedy, is now in the custody of the Museum of the City of New York, whose curatorial staff is working with the Smithsonian to determine the best methods of preservation and display. Prayer vigils on site and around the country, moments of silence - first weekly, and then monthly - served as memorial acts and evidenced our purifying efforts.
The other two crash sites became memorial sites as well. Spontaneous memorials of candles, flowers, photos, signs, and other memorabilia were left at both the Shanksville, PA crash site and on lawns near the Pentagon and the adjacent Arlington National Cemetery, already an established memorial site. The places of this tragedy are linked to their memorialization, and the concept of place has been linked to memory and memorialization, etymologically and metaphorically, since the first mention of memory, at least memory training, beginning with Simonides, a Greek lyric poet (circa 556 to 468 BC). Simonides is credited with having first discovered a means to train memory after being able to identify the victims of a roof collapse after having only recently left the building himself, by mentally reconstructing where each man sat in the room. He inferred from this, that one could train one's memory by visualizing images in some sort of orderly fashion. This legendary joining of place and memory led to methods of memory training as well as recurring metaphors that have continued the relationship of place and memory, and thereby memorialization, to the present.
This notion of images stored in places is the beginning of one of two metaphorical strands, identified by Carruthers (1990), which are used to define memory: "memory as a set of waxed tablets upon which material is inscribed, and memory as a storehouse or inventory" (p. 14). A memorial site, like the Bellevue Wall of Prayer, comprised of a collage of individual posters, or even a museum exhibit or Web site, can be seen as a series of cells in a honeycomb or in a pigeon coop, individual yet joined together by like purpose: to memorialize victims, and in Burkean terms to purge our collective selves of guilt.
Moving the Wall of Prayer off-site changes the dynamics of its memorialization, but it remains a physical memorial. While spontaneous memorials, like roadside markers of crash fatalities or even the Wall of Prayer, frequently spring up at the site of a tragedy, permanent memorials are often constructed off-site for a variety of reasons. First of all, for some survivors and surviving victims, creating a memorial at the actual site may be too painful a reminder, causing rather than healing a prolonged (and often indefinite) period of grief. Furthermore, it may simply not be feasible because of access or lack of public exposure to turn a site of tragedy into a permanent memorial site.
While plans are underway for multiple, permanent memorial sites, the Smithsonian recently undertook a memorial of national scale. Washington, DC is THE site for national memorials, not only because its location as our nation's capital affords access to its many visitors, but also because it makes a statement of the gravity and enormity of the event/life being memorialized.
That memorializing efforts for September 11 have come to Washington, DC should come as no surprise, then. Neither should it be surprising that memorials may actually take a discursive form - more than inscriptions on marble, but words written to inform, to remember, and to memorialize. As in the Bellevue Wall of Prayer, words take on a greater power as they attempt to convey the spirit of the individuals and events they seek to record. While the Bellevue Wall was predominantly contributed to by people in the NYC area, two places where national and international visitors have been able to contribute to this written memorial effort are at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History's September 11 Bearing Witness to History exhibit and The September 11 Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org).
In the physical-space September 11 Bearing Witness to History exhibit, after viewing photographs like one of Father Mychal Judge, NYFD chaplain and the official first victim of the terrorist attacks, taken moments before his death, and artifacts like twisted pieces of structural steel from the WTC or remnants of damaged rescue equipment, visitors can enter a room with tables, chairs, and writing equipment, where they are invited to write (or draw) in response to the following prompts: "How did you witness history on September 11, 2001? What do you most remember, and how has it affected your life?" Telephones are also available, through which visitors can leave their memories in audio format, which will later be transcribed and made available on The September 11 Digital Archive. These writings, private memories recorded to become part of the public discourse displayed on a museum wall (in several locations within the Smithsonian exhibit, contributed writings are displayed for visitors to read) or World Wide Web site, serve as a memorial to the lives, and a way of life lost that day. In Burkean terms, they also serve as a means to achieve redemption.
The opportunities to write continue at the Smithsonian exhibit's Web site, http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/ and The September 11 Digital Archive, http://911digitalarchive.org, a project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center (http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/tellyourstory/index.asp), where visitors are still prompted to make their memories part of the public record and memorial. (The September 11 Digital Archive, <http://911digitalarchive.org> site is also charged with digitally archiving the writings left by visitors to the physical exhibit at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)
Visitors who have contributed their memories in either venue have likely done so for a variety of reasons. Surviving victims likely seek to bear witness to their own experiences, and to share first-hand accounts of those victims who did not survive. According to Socolovsky (2002), "[t]his archival impulse reflects a desire to make oneself immortal and to cross the boundary created by time, place, and experience," and Huyssen (1993) notes that "the obsessive self-memorialization per camcorder, memoir, writing, and confessional literature . . . can be said to function as key paradigms in contemporary postmodern culture" (cited in Socolovsky (2002).
Narrative has a long history as a means of testifying to historical events, so it is only natural that one utilizes narrative to cope with an event as frightening as September 11. World Trade Center survivor Lisa Lefler reports, "I have found one thing to help me get through day by day. I have been telling my story to anyone who wants to hear it." (http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/tellyourstory/index.asp). From Odysseus on, victims have chosen to recount their experiences through personal narrative both to bear witness to the experience of themselves and others, and to undergo healing through catharsis.
"Catharsis" is an ambiguous term, referred to by Aristotle as "'the proper purgation of these emotions,'" and by Plato as "the process of purification by which the soul collects its elements, brings itself together from all parts of the body . . . " (Holman and Harmon, 1992). This catharsis might be likened to Burke's redemption.
Psychology has recognized the therapeutic value or putting trauma into words since Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud concluded that hysteria was a reaction to psychological trauma, and that, "Hysterical symptoms could be alleviated when the traumatic memories, as well as the intense feelings that accompanied them were recovered and put into words" (Herman 12, emphasis added). Pierre Janet claimed that "To overcome the traumatic reminiscences and the feelings of helplessness the experience had to be 'liquidated,' that means: transformed into a personal narrative" (Kleber and Brown 14, emphasis added). Freud maintains that although a victim must exhibit an "adequate reaction" in order to achieve catharsis, "'language serves as a substitute for action . . . '" (Scheff 38). Again emphasizing the importance of language, Freud states that catharsis is most effective "when the patient had described the event in the greatest possible detail and put the affect into words'" (Scheff 38). The importance of words and narrative is evidenced by the best known of Breuer's patients, Anna O., whom Freud's biographer claimed "' . . . was the real discoverer of the cathartic method'" (Scheff 28), and who actually named her treatment by Breuer, the "'talking cure'" (Herman 12). Even though Freud eventually abandoned Breuer's "talking cure," for his own theory of "insight," what remained constant was that putting trauma into words could bring about healing. As a result, "[m]any psychotherapists and counselors, as part of therapy and counseling, use personal journals to help patients discover their feelings and find closure for unresolved issues in their lives" (Vaught-Alexander 153).
More recently, psychology professor James Pennebaker has done studies on the effects of victims writing about traumatic events, finding that although the victims may initially feel worse about their experiences, after time has passed, they do seem to have been able to gain insight about the trauma through the writing and reflecting about the traumatic event.
Beginning first in 1983, with college students, Pennebaker and graduate student Sandra Beall designed a study that allowed them to gauge the effect of writing about traumatic events on subjects' physical health, noted by frequency of health center visits, and their emotional health, determined by answers that the writers gave on surveys, both administered immediately after the writing experience and several months later. The students were divided into four groups and each group was prompted to write about a traumatic event (or in the control group's case, a trivial event). Those who wrote about traumas, particularly those who wrote about the emotional effects of those traumas, reported feeling worse immediately after the writing experience; however, subsequent surveys, completed four months after the writing experience, reported a marked attitudinal improvement. Furthermore, those students who delved deeply into their feelings about the trauma through their writing visited the health center fifty percent less than those groups who wrote either about only the facts or the emotions of a traumatic event or about superficial topics (Pennebaker, 1990). Although Pennebaker and Beall (1986) discount the notion that writing about traumatic events represents a cathartic release of emotions, because, they believe, such a venting should have resulted in a more positive attitude in the subjects immediately after writing (280), Pennebaker (1990) believes the study indicates that the long-term effect of "writing about their deepest thought and feelings about traumas resulted in improved moods, more positive outlook, and greater physical health."
Other "victims" - those whose acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and/or family members died as a result of the crashes on September 11 - suffer the trauma of loss and the rupture of familial or societal hierarchies. Survivor and secondary-survivor guilt, then, can be seen as the result of a disjuncture in these hierarchies: "I lived, and others did not. That's wrong." These victims write to purge themselves of that guilt through memorializing the dead.
Writing about their experiences affords surviving victims a means of healing through gained understanding and insight about their experiences, but whatever healing occurs is also the result of being able to memorialize the dead through their remembrance. In fact, although healing through writing comes from insight that evolves through the process, the actual writing and sharing of these September 11 memories is also a memorial act - and being able to memorialize the dead through this commemorative outlet may have a healing power of its own.
A final group of writer-survivors becomes survivors through identification. By identifying with the victims, and by regarding the attacks as against all Americans, most Americans consider themselves to be survivors of 9/11. And as "survivors," they suffer from a pseudo, secondary-survivor guilt, from which they seek purgation as well.
My analysis of these writings has only begun, but all of these motivations are evident in the texts. As a work in process, I have few conclusions, only preliminary observations:
Writing as Contribution, Writing As Artifact
The potential effects of contributing writing to these archival museum exhibits are evident. The question remains: what are the effects that written comment, which becomes contribution, which becomes artifact, have on a virtual exhibit? More than simply an outlet for memories and volatile emotions, the writings submitted to the September 11 Digital Archive (<http://911digitalarchive.org/>) become much of the meat in the site, drawing more visitors as either contributors, readers, or both. This sort of uber-interactivity makes the virtual museum space a constantly evolving exhibit, with visitors having a greater ownership than ever before.
Most physical-space museums offer visitors choice - exhibits to see, in whole or in part, exhibits to merely gloss or skip altogether. Although there are certain design techniques in the spatial and temporal arrangements of the museum that can be employed to focus visitors in certain directions, exhibition creators in those settings cannot be sure that visitors will see "Exhibit A" before "Exhibit B," or that will see "Exhibit A" at all. (One obvious exception to this is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. With its strong narrative thread, and nearly uni-directional traffic pattern, visitors are practically guaranteed to be exposed to "Exhibit A" before "Exhibit B." Of course as with any text, exposure does not guarantee visitor interaction. As Socolovsky (2002) notes,
Any webpage invites its viewers or readers to sample, rather than master, the online text, and the cursor, signaling the reader's [visitor's] presence, can change the text itself, processing and manipulating what appears and replacing one page with another, so that no final or fixed version of the online text exists.)
The customary visitors' selectivity in the physical-space museum is increased exponentially with the hypertextuality of the Internet, and with that, the role of museum exhibition designer changes. Not only does the designer have little control over how much of or in what order visitors experience the museum site, the designer must also work with the knowledge that the exit is only a click or two away, taking visitors away from the museum as easily as they arrived. While on one hand the powerlessness to fix a determinant museum text can be disconcerting, it also means that the virtual museum exhibition is not limited to its physical holdings (or the representation of those holdings). Links to other sites can actually extend one virtual museum into another, creating a rich tapestry of museum exhibitions through which a visitor can navigate at will. In fact, as sites link to one another, the tapestry changes, thereby ensuring even more multiplicitous museum experiences.
Allowing visitors to actually contribute to the exhibition as has been done in the Smithsonian Museum of American History's September 11 (2001) exhibit and now at the September 11 Digital Archive (<http://911digitalarchive.org/>) clearly changes the overall text of the museum exhibit. In the physical-space Smithsonian exhibit, the area in which visitors were invited to write was less than 10% of the total exhibit space, and the spaces provided in several spots throughout the exhibit for the display of these writings-turned-artifacts was insignificant, particularly alongside dramatic objects like pieces of structural steel from the South Tower of the World Trade Center or the panel from a Pentagon Station fire truck.
In the September 11 Digital Archive, however, visitors are constantly being encouraged to "Be a part of how the history of September 11 gets told!" (<http://911digitalarchive.org/email/>) by submitting e-mail received on or shortly after September 11, 2001, "photographs, digital creations, or any other image regarding the events of September 11 and their aftermath," or to join over 10,000 others who have told their personal stories of that tragedy. According to Socolovsky (2002), "This archival impulse reflects a desire to make oneself immortal and to cross the boundary created by time, place, and experience." It would be on overstatement to say that the Digital Archive is largely comprised of visitor contributions, but those contributions do make up a sizeable portion of its holdings. As a result, while the site designers could conceive of the conceptual face of the archive, the distinctive facial features of the exhibit are ever changing and only hazily visible from the designers' more global view.
This level of visitor contribution to a site's virtual holdings poses challenges to site designers. Not only do the number, size, and quality of these contributions vary, but issues of suitability and potentially even censorship also come to the fore. In order to maintain site integrity, these contributions may need to be monitored in some way. Just as moderated listservs weigh the appropriateness of posts, so too must these contributions be evaluated for appropriateness.
Or should they? "Appropriateness" is an enigmatic term—difficult to define, and it varies based on the site's audience and purpose and of course the visitors' perspective(s). However, when the site deals with an issue as sensitive as the terrorist attacks of September 11 - and one likely to prompt contributors to engage in actionable incidents of hate speech - site-sponsoring institutions walk a narrow line. In late 2002, the 44 country-members of the Council of Europe moved to add an amendment criminalizing hate speech on the Internet (text of the amendment is available at <http://www.coe.int/T/E/Legal_affairs/Legal_co-operation/ Combating_economic_crime/Cybercrime/Racism_on_internet/PC-RX(2002)24E.pdf>) to the 2001 Convention on Cybercrime (text of the treaty available at <http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/185.htm>). The amendment is like a similar call that was deleted from the original 2001 Convention in hopes of garnering more signators, who might have been reticent to deal with this freedom of speech issue. While the original 2001 Convention has been signed by 30 nations, including the United States, the amendment has been signed by only 20 nations. One of the most noticeably missing signatures on this amendment thus far is the United States (Schrees, 2002).
This issue is a difficult one for governments and site designers to deal with. Sites supported by mainstream institutions are even more constrained to avoid the appearance, on one hand, of promulgating hate speech and, on the other hand, of violating free speech rights. Furthermore, the censoring of written contributions such as those submitted to the Digital Archive can easily be perceived of as censorship intended to drive a particular political agenda by silencing particular factions of the population.
To leave the issue of criminalized Internet hate speech and its conflict with that of free speech aside for a bit as an issue of the extreme, more likely the markers of "appropriateness" need be considered because for many the site serves a memorializing function. Socolovsky (2002) writes, "Archival memory on the Internet comes to mean collection and display," and as Crane (2000) reminds readers, "Being collected means being valued and remembered institutionally; being displayed means being incorporated into the extra-institutional memory of the museum visitor" On one hand, care must be taken that the contributions do not defame victims, but when for some, all "Americans" and in fact "American-ness" itself has fallen victim, anything less than seemingly blind allegiance to our government can be read as defamation of America's victimage. (Even as I write these words, I realize that I risk seeming un-American, thereby, defaming those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.)
Allowing for visitor contributions to museum sites like those of the Smithsonian Museum of American History's September 11 (2001) exhibit (physical and virtual) and the September 11 Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org/) presents exhibit designers with numerous challenges; however, the richness of these contributions does more than simply archive history, instead these archival sites actually give the ordinary individual a hand in creating history. Given this richness, and the ownership that it affords site visitors, designers should be encouraged to meld physical holdings and virtual ones from traditional and non-traditional sources to enliven the historical record with the voices of the victims and the survivors—for all those who seek to assuage guilt and to simply remember.
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