Cop and photographer who witnessed 9-11 attacks curate Field Museum tribute
Tragedy, 10 years later
09/07/2011 10:00 PM
On the upper level of the Field Museum, wedged between the collection of Pacific Spirits artifacts and the reconstructed tribal Maori Meeting House sits a new exhibit that hits a lot closer to home.
Last week, the Field opened Ground Zero 360°, a photo exhibition created by a photojournalist and a police officer from their combined experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. Irish photojournalist Nicola McClean and former head of the New York City Police Department’s 41st precinct Paul McCormack tell the story of the tragic day 10 years ago through a series of photos, anecdotes and artifacts.
The exhibit itself is arranged modestly, composed mostly of simply framed images on white walls. McClean’s timeline of photographs begins with a shot of the World Trade Center amidst the New York City Skyline and pulls viewers through each hour on 9/11. Her photographs also document the slow rebuilding progress at ground zero.
But the exhibit is more than just images. One wall is covered with missing persons fliers attached with masking tape that had originally been hung around New York City by victims’ families. Visitors are encouraged to touch pieces of granite and a steel I-beam from the fallen towers. There are two small memorials for fireman Paul Mitchell and police officer Brian McDonnell, who both lost their lives while working on 9/11 rescue missions.
Off to the side, a small listening station is set up to allow visitors to sit and listen to an hour-long recording of NYPD officers’ call-ins as they responded to the attacks. The recording includes the haunting last phone call made by officer Moira Smith, who died in the north tower.
Cleary McClean and McCormack have put together a powerful exhibit that should draw visitors to the Field into the world of Ground Zero. It should give visitors a time to reflect on the past 10 years and how their lives have changed since and because of these attacks. It should have them walking away in silence.
Unfortunately, Ground Zero 360° doesn’t get the placement it deserves. The powerful elements are modestly presented on the walls, but the space is awkward and it almost seems like the exhibit was set-up last minute. Even without a lot of visitors in the area, the arrangement made the exhibit seem small and crowded, despite being in an open space. And with the listening station set up next to the Maori Meeting House, it’s hard to even hear the call-in recordings between the shouts of families playing inside and the various sound effects from the Pacific collection.
Maybe the real reason Ground Zero 360° feels so out of place at the Field is because it isn’t what we’re used to seeing when we walk through the museum. The Field is filled with lessons of ancient history — extinct species, fallen empires, wars lost and won.
Ten years after the attacks, we’re rebuilding, but the World Trade Center site is still under construction. We’re learning how to heal from our loss, but wars that began after the towers fell still continue overseas.
And although 9/11 is already in textbooks, it still doesn’t fit quite right in the Field because it isn’t ancient history; we’re still living through it.