Stewards of Memory: Terrorism and Public Archaeology

Public archaeology is deeply connected to issues of heritage. Our National Register of Historic Places, our archaeological reviews, our love of old things are all tied back to how physical manifestations of memory shape our experience and identity. We use museums, memorials, and mansions to construct a story of our shared past, to idealize and sometimes idolize our history. Many of the moments we memorialize are surrounded with death and devastation – the National Battlegrounds of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, for instance, or monuments to the victims of the RMS Titanic or the Donner Party. When people die, our urge is to preserve their memory, to mark the loss somehow. This urge is intensified when lots of people die, or when the circumstances of their deaths are unexpected or violent. To rise into national consciousness, the tragedy must appear to be out of the control of the victims, further heightening the loss of unfulfilled potential.

FEMA is tasked with providing support and assistance, including the work of archaeologists, to survivors – people who have gone through what is likely to be the worst moments of their lives, who have lots loved ones, homes, and belonging and who are experiencing the utter disruption of their daily lives and are likely divorced from the security and comfort of their community. These tragedies may be of an environmental origin – those “natural catastrophes” of earthquake, flood and storm.  Human actions, however, may initiate some events, such as a wildfire started by throwing a lit cigarette butt out of the window of a car, lead contamination of municipal water provided to thousands of households, or the failure of critical infrastructure such as bridges or power grids. The most malevolent come in the form of terrorist attacks.

FEMA records seven terrorism-related declarations: one for the 1993 World Trade Center Explosion, two for the the Federal Courthouse bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 (emergency and disaster declarations), and the 9/11 attacks, which alone precipitated four declarations in three states (New York, New Jersey, two declarations in Virginia). Some of these events did not rise to the level of a national disaster according to the requirements of the Stafford Act, but instead are deemed “emergencies”; emergencies are very broadly defined any events that may require federal assistance to save lives and protect the health and welfare of the people in a community. Multiple Emergency or Major Disaster Declarations may be made for any single event, depending on whether it crosses state borders, its impact, or the needs of state or local agencies to manage the event.

The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people in an unprecedented barrage of horror and destruction. The attacks immediately became a part of American heritage; they are a part of our national experience of the 21st century and an instrument of identity formation, a symbol of a shared enemy that injured us and against whom we responded by dedicating lives and resources to fight for our values and way of life. The story of the attacks has been shaped, refined and retold for 15 years now, until it has become an established part of the American Story – a volatile moment in our history which has become an emblem of shared grief, national insecurity, resilience, and the ability of the “American People” to rally together to help and comfort each other. FEMA provided housing assistance, unemployment assistance, and crisis counseling to people affected by the attacks – a number of whom included FEMA’s own employees and bereaved family members as the Twin Towers housed agency offices.

I spent part of the summer of 2016 in New York City, interning for FEMA’s Environmental and Historic Preservation office at the newly rebuilt One World Trade Center. While there, reminders of the attacks surrounded me, from the enormous sunken waterfall memorials to the small oil painting of the Twin Towers hung on the office wall. One World Trade Center evokes American-ness; the building is the tallest in the Western Hemisphere, reaching a height of 1776 feet, and is sometimes called the “Freedom Tower”. Looking out of the panoramic windows you can see Manhattan stretching out on all sides, the Chrysler Building is visible in the distance. At the foot of the tower resides the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and the Oculus, a spiny prehistoric-monster of a building that houses retail shops and walkways connecting to public transit services. The entire area is an unsettling mix of banal daily life, commercial tourism, and graveyard. Tourists snap selfies in front of the vast memorial waterfalls – shaped to evoke the footprint of the Twin Towers and inscribed with the names of those killed in the attacks –  while hundreds of others line up to experience shared grief and horror of the attacks exhibited by the museum for $24 a pop. The complex is a perfect example of the tensions in American culture between everyday capitalism, remembrance of the valorized dead, and the incursion of national identity on local landscapes. The story of the attacks continues to be told and experienced by Manhattan residents and workers and tourists on pilgrimage; it is shared through our national media and used by our politicians to justify limiting our rights to privacy while increasing our military presence overseas. Last week, the President of the United States has signed an executive order which suspends the US Refugee Admissions Program and bars the entry of citizens of a handful of predominantly Muslim countries to the US, citing threats of Islamic extremist terrorism and tapping into our national fears and anxieties which are directly rooted in our shared experience of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent years of international war and domestic xenophobia.

As archaeologists we are responsible for more than just artifacts and reports and museum exhibits; we are stewards of memory and the story of the past. Our professional responsibilities extend to the inclusion of other voices, including the legal requirement to consult with other groups, agencies and Tribes during certain kinds of work. Our ethical responsibilities are vaguely defined, but in Public Archaeology include working with and advocating for the communities that are impacted by our work. We should also expand our work to challenge the abuses of our national story, most especially when it is being used to justify oppression and harm to vulnerable communities. As a public archaeologist – working for and on behalf of the people – we must use our skills, knowledge and power to benefit the people of today. Archaeology is not the goal but the tool by which we do our real work: stewardship of memory and story.

My question to you, fellow archaeologists, is this: How does your stewardship of the past challenge the abuses of today?


Further Reading

Holtorf, Cornelius. “Can less be more? Heritage in the age of terrorism.” Public Archaeology 5(2):101-109 · January 2006

Low, Setha M. “The Memorialization of Sept 11: Dominant and Local Discourses on the Rebuilding of the World Trade Center Site.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Aug., 2004), pp. 326-339

Sturken, Marita. “The aesthetics of absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Aug., 2004), pp. 311-325

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