NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER (Virtual)
MODERATOR: So good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center’s briefing with Clifford Chanin, executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – excuse me. My name is Melissa Waheibi. I’m the deputy director of the New York Foreign Press Center and I’ll be your moderator today.
Clifford Chanin oversees the 9/11 Memorial and Museum’s exhibitions, collections, and public programs. We’re grateful to have him with us today in advance of their 20th anniversary commemorative ceremony, and we look forward to hearing about their mission and programs.
Now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record. We’ll post the video and transcript of this briefing later today on our website, and Mr. Chanin will first give opening remarks, and then it’ll be time for Q&A. You can indicate that you have a question via the raised hand feature or you can just type that in the cat. So with that, I hand it over to Mr. Chanin, and we will continue from there. Thank you, sir.
MR CHANIN: Thank you very much, Melissa, and I do want to thank the Foreign Press Center for hosting this event and all of you for joining in today.
As you know, we are marking this Saturday the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It is, of course, a moment of high emotion and also a moment 20 years later where, as a kind of milestone, you all stop and think where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are headed. Of course, we are in the middle of another unimaginable event right now with the COVID pandemic, but if 9/11 brings us anything in terms of what happened here and at the other attack sites, it is a message of resilience and a sense that even the unthinkable can ultimately be overcome.
For the anniversary we will be doing first and foremost the commemorative event that we have done every year since 9/11, which is the gathering on the memorial plaza for family members starting early that morning, where we begin just after 8:46 – 8:46 was the first moment of the attack where the first tower, the North Tower, was struck by Flight 11. And so with the chiming of bells on six moments – the four hijackings and the two collapses of the towers – moments of silence for that, but the names reading will continue for about four hours over the course of the day.
And the names are being read by family members who submit a request to do names readings. We get more requests than we can accommodate, so we have a lottery for that. And we have developed, of course, over the year a pretty elaborate system for sharing, of course, the names that individuals are reading, which includes the names of their loved ones, but also pronunciation guides and just anything that would be helpful to a family member who takes on this responsibility.
As I say, that goes till around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. In the evening we will then illuminate the two enormous four-mile beams of light that fill the sky, replacing in a light projection what were 110 stories of steel and concrete, the Twin Towers. And that, of course, is a very, very moving moment. It’s amazing to me. I am a native New Yorker. It’s amazing to me how that particular moment has really seized the imagination of the city over the years.
And so the commemoration on the plaza with the names reading is for family members only. By 3 o’clock or so in the afternoon, the plaza is then reopened to the public, and many people will gather on the plaza or elsewhere as the sky darkens to just be together and take part in that projection and just, of course, thinking back these 20 years.
We have added this year on a much grander scale a new initiative, which is called Tribute in Lights, which is plural. Tribute in Light are those two beams; Tribute in Lights is the agreement of many of the famous buildings around the city and some outside the city to illuminate themselves in what we know of as memorial blue. And so that really is going to be a very, very important and moving set of activities on the anniversary day.
Twenty years is also a time, looking back, where you come to the sort of shocking realization that an entire generation is now walking the face of the Earth that has no memory of 9/11 but whose world we certainly know was shaped by 9/11. In the U.S., the estimate for the number of people who were born post-9/11 is 75 million new American citizens in the years since.
I started working on this project in 2005, which was at that point three and a half years after the attacks. And as we were beginning to plan for the memorial and museum, it was unimaginable that people who would come to our eventual museum would not have a memory of the event.
Well, it’s more than unimaginable now; it’s unimaginable that so many, many more people every year are born without this memory. And so we really have reoriented so much of our programming towards thinking about what this generation needs, how to communicate the event itself and the impact of the event in the world. Because as I said before, they are the inheritors of the world that was made by 9/11. And for anybody who has any doubts about the continuing relevance of this event, all you have to do is look on the front pages of your newspapers. It is with us and will continue to be with us. Any of you thinking of museums in your own countries that commemorate particularly important historic events, you know very well that these museums, or institutions, or memorials don’t close their doors 20 years after the event is over. They are there to teach, to interpret, to explore, and most importantly to make available to the public the detail and the depth of what happened.
But as I say, this is really now for us a critical focus of our programming. And so for the anniversary year, we are launching something called the Never Forget Fund, which is a way of fundraising for the museum that is focused on these educational imperatives in relation to the
post-9/11 generation. There is so much to be done, and so much that people want from us – let me describe to you one of our critical initiatives.
Every year we have put together what we call an Anniversary in the Schools webinar. It goes far beyond schools at this point, but we haven’t come up with a better name for it, and most of it is focused on schools. So the Anniversary in the Schools webinar is a pre-recorded film of about half an hour. It changes each year. This year it’s really focusing on service and on younger people whose lives were transformed by 9/11. And we have had in past years a growing increase, every year bigger than the previous year, in numbers of students around the country and around the world who are taking part in this program. Last year we had 340,000 students, which is an impressive number until you hear what I’m about to tell you, which is that this year we will have more than 1 million students coming to this program.
And so I tell you this in part because I like to brag about it, but also because it really is an indicator of the need. The demand out there is enormous, and it is growing because teachers are facing this issue of: How do we handle this material? How do we talk to younger people whose memories are not there, whose parents in the cases of young children – the parents may not have that clear memory of 9/11? And so it really underscores for us the importance of an education focus going forward.
And the Never Forget Fund, as I say, is the way we are going after that. So we would hope that you could take a look at the website – neverforget.org – which is a way, of course, for you to inform yourselves, but also I hope your readers, or viewers, or your audiences about what we’re doing and why it would be important to support that. And there are various options that we have available. There’s a commemorative ticket that someone can buy for $50. It is a permanent, beautifully crafted sort of metal ticket that comes with a real ticket to the museum that can be given to somebody, but it’s a keepsake that, again, is a marker of the 20th anniversary.
And one more thing I was hoping to tell you about, which is a social media initiative that we’re taking. Any of you who’ve been to the museum will, I am certain, remember the massive blue wall which holds the art installation by the New York artist Spencer Finch. Now, anybody who was in New York on that day, as I was, when they tell you their story of 9/11, 99.9 percent of them talk about a crystal-clear blue sky. That is kind of a definitional part of the memory of 9/11. And Spencer Finch, this remarkable artist, put together this beautiful installation which consists of 2,983 individual, hand-painted, unique blue watercolors, each a different blue than the other. 2,983 are the number of names on the memorial on Memorial Plaza – 2,977 victims from 9/11, six as well from the 1993 truck bomb attack at the World Trade Center. And so Spencer wanted to put together this massive installation which nonetheless reflects the individuality of each shade of blue, and thus the individuality of each of the victims.
And so coming back to that moment of memory, of what the blue sky is in the memory of those who were there, we’re asking people on the morning of 9/11 to go outside, take a picture of the sky wherever you are, no matter what color it is, and you can post it on Instagram or on other social media outlets under the rubric “NeverForget911.” And so something that, again, we hope many people around the world will be able to participate in.
And one final thing in terms of the educational programming that we’re doing. I’ve mentioned the webinar, and that is also available through our website, but before COVID we had plans with the American Library Association to distribute to two dozen libraries around the country a large-scale poster show that they could install in their museums and give a history of 9/11 to visitors, because again, it’s something very important for young people.
Of course, COVID changed everything. It changed the operation of the museum. We were forced to lay off more than half the staff and cut our budget in half, so it was a devastating impact on us and, as we know, all around the world. But we sort of reengineered with this grant from the National Endowment for Humanities and working with the library association. We reengineered the exhibition program, so now it is downloadable posters. And instead of 20 museums getting these shipped to them one after another in rotation, we now have more than 3,300 museums which have signed up to download these posters – same content, a different format. And so really, a thousand-fold increase essentially in the reach of this exhibition. So we were able to turn a little bit and go in a different direction and, frankly, a much more powerful one as it turns out.
So with that, I’m going to stop, and I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Chanin. Okay. So it’s time for the Q&A portion of this event. If you do have a question, please indicate by the digital raise-hand function, or you can do so in the chat function.
Okay, Ariel. I see you have a question. Please, unmute yourself and go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for having us. This is always really helpful, and what you have told us is also very helpful. So I am the bureau chief for Televisa, Mexico, and we are planning a very, very important coverage of 9/11. I was the only Mexican who broadcasted 9/11 live from New York when it happened. By chance, I was there. But anyhow, so for me, it’s sort of an emotional moment, but – and I’m also a member of your museum. That’s why I’m asking. I hear that colleagues that have been other – in other anniversary ceremonies are not able to broadcast from the inside of the ceremony. Will that be the case this year? Can I have my – can I do a live hit from the inside of the ceremony? If I am, in the end – if in the end, my request for accreditation is approved, I guess it’s tomorrow when they’re going to be sent; can I be from the inside broadcasting? Thank you.
MS COCHRAN: Hi, Ariel.
MS COCHRAN: Lee Cochran. I’m head of the external affairs for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. We have all of the credentialed requests that came through, and we will be issuing confirmations and we unfortunately do not have enough space for everybody.
MS COCHRAN: But – so we will be sending confirmations tomorrow. That said, we don’t allow any video inside the ceremony. There is a pool feed. If you have the advisory – and I can actually just maybe send you the link to this whole group —
QUESTION: I do have it, yeah.
MS COCHRAN: — you can get the information to buy into the pool feed and they’ll give you coverage there, and you – there is a place down on Little West Street where you can do standups with the media —
QUESTION: Oh, that’s the place? That place I’m very interested in. Where is it?
MS COCHRAN: On Little West. But let’s take that offline.
MR CHANIN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR CHANIN: Lee can give you the answer to that. I couldn’t.
QUESTION: Sorry about that.
MR CHANIN: Not at all.
MODERATOR: No, it’s a fair question. Does anyone else have any questions for Mr. Chanin right now?
QUESTION: Yes, Leah Sorkin from the Tokyo Shimbun. I’m here with the bureau chief Takahiro Sugito. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Our question was – you mentioned a statistic that there were 75 million children born since 9/11. Does that statistic include people who have been naturalized since 9/11 and things like that?
MR CHANIN: I believe it’s the statistic of births in the U.S. since 9/11.
QUESTION: Okay. Great, thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you.
Nathan, I see we have a question from you. You can unmute yourself and go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. My name’s Nathan Layne. I’m with Reuters. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about personally how you see the significance of the 20th anniversary, whether there is some significance to that. It’s a round number, obviously; a lot of focus on that. And maybe elaborate a little bit more on what you’re planning specifically for – to mark two decades.
MR CHANIN: Well, actually we’ve been programming around the two-decade anniversary in the months leading up to the commemoration event, and we will continue through the course of the year. A lot of this has to do with our public and educational programs, so it’s not so much museum exhibitions, but it’s rather things that we do which are actively engaging with audiences in a two-way exchange, whether it’s our public program platform, which pre-COVID was in the auditorium of the museum and now has gone virtual, and likewise with our education programs.
So, I mean, to give you an example of that, the last two public programs that we did within the last, I would say, two, two and a half weeks, the first one covered the lawsuit that a number of family members are conducting against Saudi Arabia. This is a civil lawsuit and there has been anger in the family community about the U.S. Government classifying and not releasing documents for this trial, and President Biden just released a statement the other day saying some documents will be released by 9/11 and others are under expedited review. So that was one program.
Another program was just in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, trying to get people who have a lot of experience in that part of the world to talk about in the immediate aftermath what it means. But that’s obviously a question that is an ongoing question. And the museum, as it has done for years, will engage that question. I mean, we opened in May 2014 and we’ve done roughly 125 public programs in the years since, most of them focused on ramifications of 9/11 in one particular way or another.
And so again, for us, honestly, all roads lead to the annual commemoration on the day, but some of those roads continue past the day, and the kind of engagement that you’re asking about, whether it’s in the museum or on our digital platform, will continue.
The follow-up – for example, coming back to the webinar question, the follow-up on that is enormous because once schools have had the experience of this particular program, they begin signing up for classroom workshops or museum tours, or we do teacher training workshops, and so the teachers come online to try to understand better how to teach what is, frankly, difficult material to bring into the classroom.
So, again, we have all kinds of things that we’ve done. We had – and in some of your countries it’s going to be premiering around the anniversary – we produced a documentary film based on an exhibition that’s still open in the museum, the exhibition and film called “Revealed: The Hunt for bin Laden,” which really tracks from the inside with interviews with a lot of the intelligence and military people who have never spoken before how the U.S. wound up taking that risk of flying to Pakistan to look in that compound in Abbottabad for bin Laden. And so the film was on the History Channel. As I say, it will be broadcast in many countries around the world on this weekend. And again, part of the continuing inquiry that we pursue programmatically. I hope that helps with your answer.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a few more minutes if anyone has any additional questions. Okay, I do see your question, Yusuke. Go ahead and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much. So I am a reporter for Japanese newspaper The Sankei Shimbun, and I visited a museum, so – the last two weeks, and talked to several people, and I encountered some people – not so many but some people – who speak conspiracy theories, so – and still there is conspiracy theories.
And so there is younger generations who don’t know the direct memory of 9/11, and so how can you – so what is a role – so how can do for preventing – so preventing to prevail those conspiracy theories and enlighten – to enlighten younger generations? Thank you so much.
MR CHANIN: That’s a great question. Thank you. And it’s one that we have to wrestle with, but as you well know, we are not the only ones who have to wrestle with that question. This kind of conspiracy theory is really – excuse me – is really a social phenomenon. I don’t really take it at face value in terms of providing a credible alternative to the story of what happened on 9/11. But what’s interesting about it, I think, is that there are many people who – or some number of people who want to believe that they have the true alternative explanation.
And what’s interesting further about that is you see it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t apply just to 9/11. I mean, there’s Holocaust denial. I mean, in this country, if you can imagine such a thing, we have people who deny that the school shooting at Sandy Hook happened. We have people denying now that the COVID vaccines are effective. I mean, this is a phenomenon that goes well beyond 9/11, but it’s particularly disturbing in our case or in the case of Sandy Hook or in the case of COVID, where you’re actually denying that people’s lives were lost, that the thing that took them away actually happened. And the injury to the family is actually increased because of this kind of denial.
So we do, really, the best we can in the sense that we are very straightforward in telling the story of what happened on 9/11. We have all the sources that can run counter to and disprove some of the core tenets of the conspiracy theory about 9/11. But my conclusion over time has been this kind of conspiracy thanking is not really rooted in anything to do with the facts of the day. It’s much more rooted in a desire to have special knowledge and a sense that you want to be on the inside of something where everybody else has been fooled and left out. And that’s just a kind of social phenomenon that attaches itself to many, many things beyond 9/11.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. We’ve had several more questions pop in. Let’s start with POP TV. Go ahead and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Tadeja of POP TV. Thank you for doing this. Can you talk a little bit maybe about the reactions, impressions of visitors to the museum, especially this young generation you were talking about that were not around for the 9/11 event? And since you said that you’re a native New Yorker, can you share a little bit your memories of that day? Thank you.
MR. CHANIN: Hey, sure. I was at home in Brooklyn just across the river, just right on the other side because I live very near the Brooklyn Bridge. And I remember just listening to the radio and they were talking after the first plane hit, the small plane. And I went about my business, which involved, at that point, planning to take a family member to a medical appointment by car across the Brooklyn Bridge. And just as we were pulling up at the red light in front of the bridge, two things happened. A police car drove in front of the entry to the bridge to block access, and then all these people who were lined up in the street looking across at the Twin Towers – I was driving so I was looking ahead – I just hear this collective shriek from the crowd on the sidewalk because they were watching the second plane hit the South Tower.
And so at that moment, of course, it’s not an accident any more. It’s deliberate. And who knows how much more is going to happen? And so we went home and just watched it on TV, basically, like anybody else anywhere else. But the thing that really is my most sort of salient memory of the day is that my kids were dismissed from school. I can’t even remember why I didn’t go get them; it’s a little bit hazy, frankly. But I will never forget this sense of being out in the street as my kids were approaching home, and the smoke was blown by the wind in our direction. And there were a lot of papers coming down from the office building all the way across the river.
But I will never forget the image of my kids watching out of this cloud, emerging from this cloud, because it was a wartime image. I don’t know what else to say; this is exactly what it was. And so my kids remember – they’re old enough to remember – but your question, the other question, had to do with the reaction of kids.
So here’s something that I think is really interesting about children, young people visiting the museum. Once they’re of a certain age, they understand the seriousness of what this was and they find it very engaging. Younger kids do too but, of course, the material has to be structured for them in a particular way, and we do a number of programs like that. But here’s the thing that I really find very striking: families come together, parents bring young children to the museum, and the question for me is always, “Why are you doing that?”
Now, in some cases it’s just you don’t have a babysitter, you have a baby in a carriage – it doesn’t matter where you take them. But once they’re old enough to ask questions, then as a parent you’re taking on a real responsibility and a real challenge, and people do this. And people ask all the time, well, isn’t it sad to be in the museum? Isn’t it just – and, of course, there are moments of sadness, obviously, in the story. But the thing about the museum is it’s a serious place where serious feelings, serious questions, serious engagements happen naturally.
And the most powerful thing for me, watching families and kids over the years, is watching how they are together in this space, that they literally come together as a family unit physically in the space. They want to be together; they want to touch. They want to be in contact with what they feel for one another because they see that the very same feelings that they share among themselves were betrayed by this attack that killed so many people who simply had left home and left their families that morning to go to work. And so obviously we have an educational function, but I think sort of the emotional and ethical impact of the visit, for me, is mostly clearly demonstrated by the way families are in the museum together.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We initially had a hard stop at 2:30, but we can take one more question. I’m going to go with one that was in the chat function. Mr. Chanin, you addressed this a little bit in your previous answer but I’ll just read this verbatim and you can wrap up with this. It’s from Czech Radio. It says: “How would you characterize the significance of the site of the 9/11 Memorial itself for Americans? I know some who have difficulties to even come there, to the burial place of many fellow citizens. Others are coming to the national monument to pay tribute, some even to take attractive photos and take it as a tourist attraction. What’s your characterization?”
MR CHANIN: I think people come for all kinds of reasons, but it is a gathering place. And so I think it was critically important that on the site of this attack – as in Washington at the Pentagon, as in Shanksville – but here where the vast majority of the victims were killed, I think it was critically important that a memorial be created, that a place be created, that could bring not just Americans together, but people from around the world together. I don’t think I have to tell any of you – you’re on this call with an interest in this subject – that while the attack was centered in four locations on the United States – it was certainly an attack on the United States – it was also an attack on the global community. And people understood that intuitively from the very first moments of the attack.
And we have our visitors – literally, when we’re pre-COVID running 3 million-plus people a year. About a third of those people come from overseas. And having spoken to many of them over the years, I can tell you that their memories of the event are no less powerful, no less dramatic, than the memories that Americans have of watching this event. And so the need to memorialize, the need to gather, the need to share that experience with people who are close to you or really just with the general public, other people who were there, it’s extraordinarily powerful.
Yes, we have discussions sometimes, or people in the press will criticize the selfie-taking and all that kind of thing, and it’s not my favorite part of the experience. But the truth of the matter is, people particularly – it’s a very wide range of people’s engagement with social media and all these kinds of things. And this is now part of what it is. But I will tell you the overwhelming majority of people who come to the memorial and come to the museum are extremely respectful. They know what they’re doing here, they have real reasons that bring them here, and they act accordingly.
And looking forward, we will convey the same gravity, the same seriousness of what this place represents to the younger generation, to all of these people whose – as I said before, their lives were shaped by this event, the world was shaped by this event, but they don’t necessarily know what it is. The thing that we have to do now is really go back to basics. What was this event? How many airplanes? What did they do? What happened to the people on the plane? Why these targets? So on and so forth. It really comes back to the most basic – the most basic elements of the story, once again, as the starting point for everything else.
So if I could leave you with any message, it really is about this educational need for what we do, and ask you: Anything you can do to push out the Never Forget Fund at neverforget.org would be most appreciated. Thanks, everybody.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Mr. Chanin. Really appreciate your time with us and your remarks. With that, this event has come to a close. Like I said at the top, our transcript and video will be made available on our website after. We thank you all for your attention today, and I wish you a good afternoon. Thank you.