French museum to revisit Sept. 11 in a big way
On the shores of Normandy where thousands of Americans died in the cataclysm that was D-day, a museum that aims at being more than a collection of rusting relics is preparing to commemorate another day that changed the world: Sept. 11, 2001.
More than 120 mementos, including building keys and a smashed-up vehicle, are being shipped from New York to the French city of Caen for the first exhibition outside the United States, and the largest anywhere on the attack, its roots and aftermath.
That France is playing host to the exhibition might surprise Americans who remember the “freedom fries” uproar that greeted Paris’ opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the Bush administration tied to its war on terrorism. But the director of the Caen Memorial, a museum of conflict and peace, said the show would have neither an American nor French take on events surrounding Sept. 11, but rather a global view.
“The people who died in those buildings were from 16 countries and every religion,” Director Stephane Grimaldi said. “It was an attack against America. It was an attack against democracy and human rights. We want to tell that story.”
The exhibition, titled “A Global Moment,” is expected to open June 6 at the museum, which was built to remember those who died on that date in 1944 and in the Battle of Normandy that began with the landings.
Grimaldi said that although the relationship between the French and Americans has been complicated by post-Sept. 11 politics in recent years, museums that try to explain the meaning of war are valuable as a way to discuss peace and shared democratic values.
“The American troops’ coming to Normandy to free Europe was a turning point in World War II,” he said during an interview in Paris. “While we still don’t know the historical significance of 9/11, we know it is a turning point and it is time to begin to understand and explore it together.”
Grimaldi said he chose the 9/11 exhibition to mark the 20th anniversary of the French museum because the act of terrorism that day in 2001 is so important to contemporary politics and everyday life around the world.
“The world today is the world of 9/11,” he said, “and our museum is here not to be just another collection of things from the past, of old tanks and helmets, but to understand the world of today that is so marked by terrorism.”
The show is being presented with the New York State Museum in Albany, which has assembled a vast Sept. 11 collection for its permanent exhibition as well as a display that has toured the U.S.
Mark Schaming, the state museum’s director for exhibitions and programs, said the French show is not only the largest in scale, with 7,000 square feet of displays and a catalog, but also in scope.
“What we decided to do in France is a much broader story than focusing just on the events of Sept. 11,” he said. “We decided to step back a little and tell more about Al Qaeda itself and profile the 19 terrorists and look at the hours of the day with a timeline and with people involved.”
Profiles of 10 victims and people who helped in the rescue effort will be illustrated by their possessions, either recovered from building debris or donated later to the Albany museum, such as a battered pair of shoes belonging to a woman who walked down more than 80 flights of a tower before it collapsed.
Among those profiled will be flight attendant Jean Roger, 24, of Longmeadow, Mass., who was supposed to be off that day but called in at the last minute to substitute for an ill colleague and died on Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower.
The idea for the exhibition began a year ago when Roger’s father, Thomas, was visiting France. The elder Roger, a member of the board of directors of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which is set to open on the World Trade Center site in 2011, came to Normandy during his vacation because he was curious about the French museum. It had been held up to the board of directors as a model for how to use static displays of objects with media technology to tell a compelling story.
In a phone interview from Massachusetts, Roger said he hoped the show would put in context for Europeans what happened that day. “While media coverage was extensive on 9/11 in 2001, the goodwill and many of the facts of the event were eclipsed by media attention that quickly swung over to the war efforts, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. And the European reaction to the Iraqi situation was so negative.”
The conflict in Iraq strained France’s relationship with the U.S., but the diplomatic chill has been dissipating since the election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made repeated diplomatic and personal efforts to demonstrate an affinity for all things American. As recently as last week, President Bush at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization conference in Bucharest, Romania, was quoted as speaking of Sarkozy’s November visit to the U.S., saying the impact on the American people was “like the latest incarnation of Elvis.”
Schaming said the collaboration between the museums was never marred by politics and pointed out that in the artifacts coming to Caen will be evidence of cultural commingling between the U.S. and France. In one shipment will be a bronze life-size man’s torso and a foot, two battered pieces from an extensive art collection that was on display at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services firm that lost almost 700 people in the disaster. The bronze remnants are from a sculpture made long ago by a Frenchman named Auguste Rodin.