In Praise of Footprints and Ephemera

Numerous memorials have tried to make sense of and solemnly remember the events of September 11, 2001. While it would take a decade to design and install an official memorial, people from around the world participated in impromptu dedications at the World Trade Center site and in Shanksville, Pa.

Photo taken in 2005 of the few pieces allowed to be left each day on the fence by Ground Zero ben matthews :::

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Since the attacks of September 11th a decade ago, numerous memorials have tried to make sense of and to solemnly remember that day’s world-changing events. While it would take a decade to design and install an official memorial, people from around the world participated in impromptu dedications at the World Trade Center site and in Shanksville, Pa. These self-made memorials created in parks, on walls, along sidewalks and in other public places where the effects of 9/11 were felt, poignantly expressed the urgent, personal need to respond to the loss of life. While these ephemeral memorials provide immediacy, imageability and populist authority, they often lack materiality, formal excellence or permanence. People want to see their own hand; however fleeting, they want evidence of their own remembering and forgetting. But do they help, in the long run, build a more robust collective memory? Their continuing presence in public consciousness, ten years after the attacks, suggest that the impact of these memorials far outlasts the durability of their materials.

By contrast, the new memorial at the World Trade Center site exemplifies a kind of traditional memorial design: footprints, stone and water set in a dramatic, specially designed public space. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we, the public, searched clumsily for some shared understanding of what to do next, particularly in New York, where the attack site would also remain an urban place. While conflicts abounded as to the appropriate way to memorialize 9/11, many people shared a belief that the footprints of the two main WTC towers should have a strong presence in a memorial.

What is it about footprints that speak to a universal instinct in memorial design? Footprints are the evidence left behind of something gone missing. The twin towers will never be rebuilt, but the footprints satisfy a need to have a reminder of the buildings, the people, and the scale of what had once existed there.

Can traditional memorial design and ephemeral memorials coexist in the same spaces? This will be an ongoing tension. Despite the obvious popularity and power of popular memorials as part of the public response to 9/11, memorial stewards have resisted their inclusion in “official” memorials. Remember the signs on the fences around Ground Zero forbidding the leaving of any personal memorial? How this impulse will be accommodated in the new memorial will matter.

There is no choice to be made between ephemeral and official memorials. What’s significant is that the cultural landscape of memorials encompasses both (all) kinds of memorials, representing by its diversity and changefulness a robust culture of marking time. The memorial landscape, by representing little new in the way of design but bolstered by intense politics—marks the resilience commentators are fawning over these days. While recent memorials may not represent deep, critical exploration of 9/11’s meaning—we have years to work on that—they are healthy signs of a more gregarious engagement with the past in public space. A mix of ephemera and prime objects feels right. It reflects the vexing nature of memorials and our very human confusion about whether to resist or change with time.

Randall Mason is Associate Professor and Chair, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania. Author of The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). He is working on a book about the history and design of popular memorials.

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Tags: new york city

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