On an extremely cold day in early February I visited the Flight 93 memorial near Shankstown in Western Pennsylvania. I can’t say that I learned anything new about the events surrounding the crash of that plane, but I did learn a lot about the nature of memorials and how they differ from archives. What I saw was homage to American patriotism and all the myths we seem to accept.
Alexander T. Riley, Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America (New York: New York University Press, 2015), a volume I picked up in the gift shop at the memorial, helped me sort through this. Riley, a sociologist, places the memorial within the notion of civil religion, the need for ritual, and the Christian hero-martyr. While archivists have adopted memory as an element of their mission, there is a big difference between monuments and archives. Riley states, “A memorial is, among other things, a mask. Its primary task is to hide the horror of the event it memorializes; more specifically, it cloaks the destructive effect the event had on the bodies of the dead, In this and other ways, a memorial calls us to forget as much as to remember” (p. 115). This is very different than what an archives is intended to do, in gathering the evidence, warts and all, relating to an event, an individual, or a place.
Here is another assessment of the memorial: “Ultimately, the intent of Flight 93 mythologization is not to help us remember the aspects of September 11, 2001, that cannot be reduced to the contours of the American hero myth, but rather to help us forget our vulnerability and our weakness and to thereby return us quickly as possible to our normal lives” (p. 286). The purpose of an archives is to help us remember and, more importantly, to understand. And, with this, there is a gap between the purposes of memorials and archives.