Just hours after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, photos and other media began to collect in commemoration of the tragedy that had just occurred.
On Monday, University of Regensburg German professor and author Ingrid Gessner described these remembrances as “digital humanities” and discussed their impact on the way the nation grieved after the attacks.
“An unofficial record of immediate responses should not be lost or disregarded,” Gessner said. “Spontaneous memorials at Ground Zero bared a sacred quality of standing with the dead. Also, missing person fliers represented another form of spontaneous memorial. At the moment they were put up, they became expressions of prayer and hope.”
The New York Times recognized this unconventional type of memorial and began dialing the numbers on posters, compiling stories and publicizing each one.
“They promised that all profiles will remain on their website indefinitely,” Gessner said. “The portraits have become a memorial of virtual presence.”
Eventually, permanent memorials were constructed both locally and internationally. These memorials all used similar structural plans but reflected different concepts.
“Memorials should not enshrine any particular interpretation of the past, but invite visitors to use their memory,”Gessner said. “Memory can assume an active role and allow for renewal and healing. There is no shared narrative about 9/11 itself, so there is a lack of a definite interpretation.”
Certain aspects of memorials allow for such individual interpretation while still encompassing the collective experience of the event. Names, empty space, trees, walls, light and water are among the most common attributes of memorials, Gessner said.
“Emptiness allows a descent into memory and is a primary design element,” Gessner said. “Trees display liberty, rebirth, possibly even resistance. Water is the most common feature, and the two cascading sunken pools in the Ground Zero Memorial encompass the footprints of the two towers.”
The New York Ground Zero Memorial features all of these elements, the most iconic being the annually-lit 88 searchlights outlining the building footprints, creating two vertical columns of light in place of the towers.
Although New York is home to the largest and most famous memorial for 9/11, other countries have created off-site memorials.
The Donadea 9/11 Memorial is located near Dublin, Ireland, and specifically honors a firefighter from the area who died in the aftermath of the attacks.
“Donadea built a scaled replica of the Twin Towers, carved in blocks of limestone,” Gessner said. “They are surrounded by newly planted oak trees and contain all the names of the New York firefighters and policemen and women [who died].”
Similarly, Moncalvillo, Spain, built a 9/11 memorial to commemorate a member of its community who worked in the financial district of New York and perished on 9/11.
“There is a contextual relation by remembering 9/11 through the tragic death of individuals who had ties to these specific hometowns,” Gessner said.
Other off-site memorials are located in Oberviechtach, Germany; Seoul, South Korea; Padua, Italy and Jerusalem, Israel. Nearly all of these memorials contain actual pieces from the building, creating a physical tie to New York. Each memorial reflects the transformation of the Twin Towers into icons through the media coverage following the events.
“This contains a transformative potential,” Gessner said. “Change is only possible in a certain continuation of form. Minimalist structures function as the most effective form of memorials.”