The Irony of "The Outsider"

With the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 fast approaching, people across the media have had a lot to say. Sometimes I think an entire book could be written about the human obsession with anniversaries, especially those with round numbers, but that's a subject for another blog post.

Still, this year marks a significant commemorative moment, a decade since the opening of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and six years since the opening of the museum. And since I speak to students every year about the making of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, folks have been sending me new resources of interest on that topic.

So naturally, "The Outsider," a new documentary produced by Abramorama, piqued my interest.

I remember the film crew headed by documentarians Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder making regular appearances at the museum offices at One Liberty Plaza both while I worked there full time and even, on occasion, coinciding with my monthly visits once I'd relocated to Michigan in 2010. Over the course of six years, the filmmakers had accumulated over 600 hours of footage of meetings, interviews, construction, and more.

So I was surprised when I saw the trailer by how they chose to frame the story. Having watched the full documentary, I feel comfortable declaring my dislike for it in its entirety. 

As a history curator, I am sympathetic to the challenges of creating a coherent narrative experience from many disparate moments-- quotations, images, vignettes. And especially knowing the dangers of oversimplification, you have to work harder to balance viewpoints, provide context, and check your biases. I also know this can be even harder to do in a documentary, which relies on a linear chronology, than in a museum exhibit (or even a website) where visitors can make choices about where they dwell and how they move from topic to topic or space to space.

Yet, the irony of "The Outsider" is that it seems to purposefully do just what it laments in its observation of the development of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. "The Outsider" claims that the professional staff who worked to build the museum moved from an open-ended presentation of the evidence and impact of 9/11 to a closed narrative of U.S. victimization and grievance culture. The documentary alludes to political pressures and personality differences and implies that there is something inherent in the professionalization of public history that results in an attitude of "question answering" among curators. But the documentary never explains what actually changed between the museum's alleged vision in the early stages of the planning process and the vision of the museum upon its opening in 2014. Worse, the documentary creates a story with a cast of archetypes-- a scrappy protagonist, a staid, conservative leader-turned-villain, a small number of supporting players who get caught up in the central conflict-- where none of that existed. By imposing a narrow narrative on a complex and organically unfolding process, the documentary does exactly what it claims that the 9/11 memorial museum did in the creation of its exhibits. 

Especially painful to watch were the many missed opportunities to expand the story and make it truly multivocal. There were moments when you could see that the project team was much larger than the few the film chose to follow. There was beautiful footage of artifacts, explored with the guidance of the chief curator's eloquent descriptions. There were moving scenes of empathy expressed by the director of exhibitions as she assembled photographs for the memorial exhibition. There were allusions made to the multiplicity of perspectives among family members and other stakeholders in the development of the project as well as the tremendous pressure baked into the project's expectations from the beginning-- its massive scale, its central location, the rawness of the wound felt across demographics of American and international society. Yet, it seemed to me that every time the story had an opportunity to bloom outward and ask the legitimate questions raised by such an unprecedented endeavor, the documentary creators purposefully reigned it back in to focus narrowly on tensions they perceived between the visions of Michael Shulan, the creative director, and Alice Greenwald, the director of the museum, bolstered by a pile of unexplored assumptions. Why would professionals lack an appetite for raising questions? Why would the presence of politicians on the nonprofit's board automatically skew the project in a conservative direction? Why might the museum wait to explore some of the political and cultural ramifications of its central event until after its initial opening? (As an aside, I discovered today that a reviewer in the New York Times agrees with me.)

Twenty years after 9/11, the geopolitical changes wrought by the event and the social rifts illuminated in its aftermath are becoming more apparent. As I write this piece, the Taliban is reestablishing control in Afghanistan. Debates over how things that make some people safer make others feel less free are rising to a fever pitch. The ways in which race and religion and class consciousness intersect with national pride and a sense of belonging remain contested and unresolved. The questions that need to be asked are being asked by many. And many are trying to provide answers. And the 9/11 Memorial Museum, in all its imperfection, sits in the middle of this milieu. The people I knew who worked on this project, and who continue to work on this project, aren't heroes or villains. They are storytellers working in the medium of the museum. They are taking it day by day. 


Adina Langer said…
Another interesting take:
Adina Langer said…
Really thoughtful contemporary review: