Secular Cathedrals

Article excerpt

CATHERINE CROFT on how New York's documenting the city's disaster

Museum curators and directors are not me first people one imagines rushing in to help in the wake of a crisis such as the destruction of the World Trade Center but, in the weeks since 11 September, New York's museums have created a vital role for themselves. In the immediate aftermath, they opened free of charge to provide somewhere for the uncomprehending residents of the city to seek refuge and meaning. This is in tune with the recent tagging of an increasingly diverse range of US museums as "cathedrals for secular culture".

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, located on the Upper East Side in an affluent world superficially untouched by the tragedy, charged itself with this spiritual role in an open letter published in the New York Times: "At a time of loss and profound dislocation, art museums offer a powerful antidote to hopelessness: their collections testify to the permanence of creative aspiration and achievement and offer solace, affirmation and a spirit of renewal so essential to our recovery.. ." However, the special events that were swiftly organised did not draw directly on the Met's fantastic range of paintings and objects. Instead, visitors were offered "Sounds of Solace: music for reflection", lunchtime concerts of classical music, and "Poetry for the Human Spirit", readings from the works of Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, W H Auden and others. The museum's associate director for education, Kent Lydecker, does not rule out organising a display on the subject of loss, or even death, in the future, but feels that it would b e premature to do this immediately. It's almost as if objects are considered too powerful.

In contrast, directly across Central Park, the New York Historical Society has assembled a collection of objects and loans of direct relevance. A book of condolence placed prominently in the ground-floor hallway rests on a plinth hiding a tape recorder, which plays extracts from an archive recording of William Feehan, the fire chief who was killed in the rescue mission. His photograph is accompanied by

* a work by an artist who benefited from a studio scheme in the World Trade Center, along with a First World War scene of New York draped in American flags. An 1857 carved figure of Harry Howard, the chief engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department, stands against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes that hung outside a New York home as President Lincoln's funeral procession passed.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was prevented by a mayor's decree from reopening for two days because it was so close to the World Trade Center. …