Andrew W. Mellon Fellow 9/11 Memorial & Museum

September 2017 – September 2019

For two years, I had the privilege of working with staff – volunteer and employees – at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.

There, I explored the effects on workers of chronically bearing witness to the events of September 11th, 2001 in New York City. Workers respond to their environments with a range of affect dependent on their individual attachments to the event, personal coping styles, and the level of exposure to traumatic content, of the event and of trauma in general. But all who perform jobs at memorial and museum sites actively participate in the phenomenon of bearing witness.

As witnesses of mass trauma, included in the jobs of memorial and museum workers is the imperative both to know about the traumatic event, detail by detail, and to be engaged in acting on this knowing, daily, in order to transmit such knowledge to the public. Institutional visions, politics, mission statements, and external communication generally determine the key messages workers deliver. Embedded in mission statements, advertisements, public statements, and social media lie moral imperatives for workers. For instance, at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum workers are called through a mission statement to bear “solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.”[1] For those who work at Auschwitz, the appeal is to present “the remains” of the prison camp[2] to visitors all day, every work day. People employed at both locations attest to horrific acts of past violence in order to preserve memory, with the hope that doing so will assure the impossibility of such violence ever occurring again. This attestation remains central to every site I visited. Interviews with memorial and museum workers across the globe evidenced for the most part highly intelligent, thoughtful, and empathic people who did not come to their jobs randomly, but instead chose to work to honor a person or an idea. Not one interviewee was without a reason, often emotionally based, for pursuing employment in the field of commemoration.

My forthcoming book: Impact: The Cost of Bearing Witness to Mass Trauma will reflect the deep affective experiences of staff at memorials and museums that attest to mass trauma.


[2] Museum website

By Stephanie Arel