9/11 victims’ family fury at museum artefact: ‘Only stakeholders of human remains’

9/11: 20 years on since terror attacks on World Trade Center

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in modern history. 2,977 victims lost their lives on September 11 2001 at the hands of 19 cowardly al-Qaeda terrorists, who hijacked four planes. Two were crashed into the Twin Towers of New York’s iconic World Trade Center, a third struck the Pentagon in Washington DC, while another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after a passenger revolt. The fourth hijacked plane was thought to be heading towards the Capitol or the White House.

A new documentary film has shed light on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, situated where the Twin Towers once stood.

The Outsider followed the challenges involved in making the museum, centred around Michael Shulan, hired as the first “creative director” after he organised a crowdsourced photo gallery showing pictures taken on 9/11.

Mr Shulan, who described himself as an “outsider”, had never worked in a museum before.

The film’s narrator explained how museum director Alice Greenwald “wanted a creative leader who would challenge the dusty conventions of museum making”.

Michael laid down a series of conditions when first employed, notably that “if we were going to make this museum then we had to tell the story of what actually happened”.

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The film shows disagreements between Mr Shulan and the rest of the staff members. He ultimately ended up leaving the museum on the day it opened, in May 2014. 

Much controversy surrounded the museum’s opening. The gift shop and $24 (£17.35) entry price faced fierce criticism, as did one of the artefacts known as composites.

The narrator said families were “appalled that the memories of their loved ones are being monetised into ‘tacky, branded keepsakes’”.

The film cuts to a CNN report showing when the New York Post published a front page story titled “Little Shop of Horrors”, and the subsequent backlash. 

Jim Riches lost his son, a firefighter, in the 9/11 attacks. He told CNN: “Basically, they’re making money off my son’s dead body. I think that’s disgusting.”

When the towers collapsed, multiple floors were compressed into single objects. Two of these, known as composites, were recovered during the excavation process and were considered for display in the museum.

One of them sits in a secluded alcove in the museum, in the footprint of the north tower.

Jan Ramirez, chief curator of the museum, said: “This is one of our most challenging artefacts. 

“There are certainly some family members who have gone on record as being opposed to the display of this piece.”

Mr Shulan added: “It was ascertained that there were no human remains in them, but obviously the families were concerned and rightfully so.”

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Despite the confirmation that human remains were not in the composites, debate raged on as to whether they should be included in the museum, and how and where they should be preserved if included.

The museum also has a repository for the remains of 9/11 victims. Of the nearly 3000 people to die on 9/11, around 1100 remain uncovered.

In February 2013, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME) reported 8454 human remain samples, most the size “of a Tic Tac”. These were transferred to the museum just before it opened as identifications continue to be made.

The museum’s website said: “The repository is separate from the public space of the 9/11 Memorial Museum and is only accessible by OCME staff.

“A private space exclusively for 9/11 family members, known as the Reflection Room, is located next to the repository.”

Many family members, however, still opposed, and held a silent protest. One poster at the protest said: “We are their families… they belong to us. Not a museum. Not the city!!!”

Another relative of someone who died on 9/11 told USA Today: “For all the other elements in this museum, we’ve been told we’re one of the many stakeholders, it’s not our museum.

“When it comes to human remains, we are the only stakeholders.”

Other family members, however, supported the decision. The repository lies behind a huge wall bearing the Virgil quote: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

The museum has accused The Outsider of damaging its reputation, and sent filmmakers a lengthy list of objections which it demanded was deleted.

One objection included curators listening to a harrowing 911 call where a woman trapped on the 83rd floor cries “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”, which officials explained they had decided not to use.

A ceremony will be held at the museum today during which the names of all the victims will  be read aloud. 

It will begin at 8:46am, the time the first plane hit the World Trade Centre, after a minute’s silence. Silences will also be held at 9:03am, 9:37am and 10:03am, when the planes hit the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and crashed into a Pennsylvania field respectively.

The annual Tribute in Light will project two beams into the sky, where the Twin Towers once stood, this evening.

The Outsider is available on Apple TV and Facebook.

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