9/11 and Archaeology

‘Archaeological’ remains of American Airlines flight 11 on display at the Intrepid Museum, New York City. Photo: TMK, January 2006.

Going through old files, I came across this photo from the Intrepid Museum in NYC. An odd combination indeed: the scattered remains of one of Manhattan’s most important landmarks and parts of the airliner that brought it down, exhibited in a museum that celebrates American supremacy of sea, air and space. But more importantly, why do we need to see these remains of an aircraft-cum-killing machine altogether?

There is now a growing amount of archaeological literature on 9/11, focusing on the interstices between memory, materiality and the ‘archaeological imagination’ (see e.g. work by Michael Shanks, Lynn Meskell, and Jennifer Wallace). This display in the Intrepid Museum demonstrates at least two aspects of this debate: the musealization of social memory, and the monumentalization of the debris of the past (note the glass casing). Let me quote Meskell (pp. 599-600):

We are witnessing the desire for grounded materiality at a staggering rapidity, to apprehend the objects and physical signs of a newfound heritage in real and tangible ways. This familiar desire for material commemoration and the physical marking of the event, is juxtaposed against the realization that the attacks (and the subsequent war on Afghanistan) have been experienced through virtual means. The events of September 11 have inaugurated a resurgence of the real, and of the violence of the real, supplanted within a supposedly virtual universe (Baudillard 2001). The moments of impact when the hijacked planes hit the towers were televised repeatedly, a fantasmatic screen apparition turned reality. It was the ultimate fantasy, albeit nightmare fantasy, foretold in H. G. Wells novel War in the Air (1908), Lorca’s New York poetry, penned in 1929, and in innumerable Hollywood disaster movies (Zizek 2001: 17)…

As a consequence of the virtual material tension, Ground Zero has been mythologized in what Blake has referred to as the “seismic shift of the spatiality of American patriotism” (Soja and Blake 2002:157). As part of a patriotic resurgence we have witnessed an increasing desire for materiality, for historical marking and heritage creation and consumption. We can be sure that another landmark will be added to the list, a yet untitled museum dedicated to the disaster, for which the selection of objects is already underway.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *