Psychologist helps with design of 9/11 Memorial

By Catherine Robertson Souter
July 1st, 2014

On May 22, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum beneath the former site of the World Trade Center opened to the public.

The task of designing a memorial to the 2,977 lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, has been monumental. The designers needed to work with the families to honor those who perished especially because for many, this memorial is also their final resting place. They had to appreciate that some visitors may feel the events as though they were only yesterday and still design something that will be relevant in 30 or 50 years.

Recognizing the impact that any memorial to the most traumatic event in recent history would have on visitors, the design team responsible for the interior space reached out to New York psychologist Billie Pivnick, Ph.D., to collaborate on the interior spaces.

A clinical psychologist with a private practice in Greenwich Village, Pivnick is on the faculties of the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program, the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, The New Directions Program in Psychoanalytic Writing and Columbia University Teachers College.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her work with the September 11 Memorial and how psychologists can add a unique viewpoint to the designing of public spaces.

 Q: How did your participation in the 9/11 Memorial come about?

A: Around 2004 I began working with Thinc Design, an exhibition design firm, on a children’s museum to help figure out what cognitive levels they could pitch various exhibits at. I collaborated with the design team on several science museums after that.

When Tom Hennes, the chief designer at Thinc, was competing in the final stages for the 9/11 Museum project, he realized he had not fully taken into account what the visitor experience might be.

So he and I spent several days walking through other memorial museums and thinking about things like a need for multiple exits so people do not get claustrophobic and placing tissue boxes here and there. As psychologists, we know all about tissue boxes.

Q: Is this a new field?

 A: I am not sure it is a field yet; we will have to see. People tend not to think about the visitor experience. It would be nice if they began to use psychologists in these projects because I do think we have something to offer.

Q: What training did you need? Did you have design training?

A: I already had a specialty in working in the area of loss and trauma beginning when I was working with chronic pain patients at New England Rehab Hospital.

I also worked as a dance therapist and I taught in a creative arts therapy program teaching psychology to people who were primarily visual or kinesthetic in their orientation. Not all psychologists think about things through movement but it is my natural vocabulary.

Q: What was your role in the design?

A: Each project is a little different and the population it serves is different. Obviously, in the 9/11 Museum we wanted to help create conditions for mourning, for bearing witness to other people’s suffering, for memorializing both through history and storytelling.

We visited the hangar at JFK Airport where the reclaimed steel was stored. We were looking at this lifeless steel and torqued bike racks. The bikes survived but there are no people. You come away feeling like there is a story in all these artifacts but no verbs in the story, no life, no movement and taking in the shock of that.

The conservator of the artifacts said, “This will not be your first visit here.” He meant that this would not be our last visit. It was a kind of slippage that showed the collapse in time that you see in trauma where the present feels like the past. That began to alert me to looking for things like the kind of narrative you would get in trauma patients.

Q: Tell us about the space.

 A: The pools are in the footprints of the towers but in reverse because the water is flowing into the ground. And the museum is underneath the pools.

The museum is 70 feet underground and there is a long ramp down into the space. It reminded me of Orpheus going down to go get Eurydice but he can’t come back with the body, only the memory of her, the symbolic form.

Q: How did that affect the design?

A: There are two main parts of the exhibition, historical, which tells the events of the day and the memorial exhibition, a kind of sanctum within a sanctum. In the outer area, there is a long, long swath of wall space devoted to the great number of people who died, so you can see the extent of the damage. Within the inner sanctum you can call up images of individual people and their stories. So there is the zone of the many that gives you the scope of what happened and the zone of the one in which you can remember individuals.

We were trying to always juxtapose the individual and the group because we are all intertwined. That is the basic principle of ethics.

Another area where we used psychology was in creating a narrative arc through the museum itself. We wanted to help people leave feeling intact. It begins where the visitors are hearing other people’s stories about where they were that day. It is a way of saying, “I was there then.”

At the end of the museum journey there is a piece of steel people can sign electronically. They can leave a mark on the site so we are turning the passive experience of being immersed into something active, which is how people cope with trauma, turning passive into active. In signing the steel, they are saying, “I am here now.” I was there then, but I am here now. That is preparation for leaving, so that they are reoriented in time.

Q: How will you know when you have succeeded?

A: So far even though people say it is very sad and painful and sometimes difficult, they come out feeling it has been a positive experience and not unbearable.

We wanted to facilitate mourning for people who still need to mourn and we wanted to facilitate memorialization, which is a more social process.

Plus, there is an idea of trying to restore dialogue about the events and their meaning.

You can see other people reacting perhaps differently or the same as you would and begin to locate yourself within the world of perspectives without shutting down into one easy, simplistic narrative; “We are the good guys and they are the bad guys.”

Q: It is not that simple …

 A: We were hoping to create a little more openness and awareness that more than just those buildings collapsed. There was a collapse of dialogue, a collapse of time, a collapse of the ability to listen to one another, all of which affected our political process as a country.

That is the service that a memorial should serve and can serve. The idea is that you create a space for restoring social links and things that have been severed because of the fear and the urge for revenge and the chaos of the aftermath. Memorialization serves an important function and then life goes on if it has done its work.

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