"Missing" Sensitivity:

Most New Yorkers who encountered "Missing" posters after the attack on the World Trade Center simply stopped to view the poignant, desperate signs and then melded back into the bustle of the city. Some left candles at the impromptu shrines beneath them or took pictures, but few disturbed the chilling posters, which remain on display in Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and several other sites around the city. To take them down seemed like an act of sacrilege.

But business books author Louis Nevaer isn't like most New Yorkers. Last fall, as
the New York National Guard was removing "Missing" posters from the outer walls
of its armory on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, preserving them for archives and
museums, Nevaer saw an opportunity.

The Brooklyn Heights resident collected more than 400 posters and, with a little financial backing from his employer, the Mesoamerica Foundation, set off with them on a national tour. His goal was admirable: to allow individuals on the West Coast and in the South a chance to grieve for, honor, and get to know the dead in the same way that New Yorkers had been doing for months. "Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001" (click here for the exhibit's Web site) was greeted with acclaim when it opened in California and Florida in January and February. It occasioned page one coverage in the Los Angeles Times and a delicate treatment in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Something, though, seems to have gone terribly wrong as the show made its way back up the East Coast. The exhibit arrived in Washington just in time for the six-month anniversary of the September 11 attacks, its presentation curiously oblivious to the controversies surrounding efforts to commemorate the date. As a result, the latest incarnation of "Missing" manages to turn what could have been a sensitive commemoration into a jarring, tasteless presentation of some of September 11's most powerful fragments.

Here in Washington, just across the river from another attack site, the framed "Missing" fliers are being displayed cheek-by-jowl with a cheery group of unrelated paintings in three gallery rooms donated by the Artists' Museum (where they will be until March 29). Local gallery-goers know this venue for its middlebrow art and kitsch, such as a recent show of glittery papier-mâché masks with feathers on them. And in this context, perhaps it's only fitting that Nevaer has purposefully aestheticized the 210 posters on display, excluding black and white fliers from his show, he says, because they are less attention grabbing. Indeed, the show's March 8 opening struck an offensively irreverent tone: Gallery-goers wandered amidst the posters drinking glasses of chardonnay while live jazz music thrummed in the background from a band playing in another gallery down the hall.

Such an approach contravenes the principles most curators rely on when handling sensitive material. "I think it's very important to set up a threshold experience from a design perspective," says Jan Ramirez, museum director of the New York Historical Society. "This is not cocktail-hour eye recreation…These were very ephemeral things, very spontaneously produced, but the consequences attached to them were so forceful and so appalling I sure wouldn't be looking at them with a glass of wine in my hand."

Ramirez has taken a very different tack with the artifacts of September 11. The Historical Society, which has become the final resting place for many "Missing" fliers removed from city facilities, also hosts a show also titled "Missing." But the group chose not to display the fliers; instead, it's showing photographs of the posters and of street-side shrines.

"We're not ready to show the actual missing posters. They're just too fraught with local emotion and association," Ramirez said. "We actually made some initial phone calls to the numbers [on the fliers] and found that a lot of people weren't ready to talk and weren't ready to have their loved ones historicized so quickly."

The artists behind exhibits and films commemorating and documenting September 11 have each had to grapple with difficult questions about what separates education from exploitation -- and how to clearly mark the distinctions between history and art. Jules and Gedeon Naudet's CBS documentary, "9/11," chose to edit out some of the sounds of jumpers crashing to the ground outside the World Trade Center. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose pictures of Ground Zero are traveling internationally in a U.S. State Department-sponsored show, has been accused of aestheticizing the horror of September 11 in his sometimes disturbingly beautiful pictures. And the temporary memorial originally conceptualized by Julian LaVerdiere, Gustavo Bonevardi, and others as the "Towers of Light" rightly evolved in response to public concerns as it moved from concept stage to reality. It became the commemorative "Tribute in Light," to better honor the victims and not just the buildings destroyed last fall.

Nevaer's "Missing" exhibit also edges up to these very difficult questions. But beyond its crass handling of the posters in Washington, it crosses the line in another way, by showing not just the photos of the dead but how to get in touch with their relatives. And not all those relatives have given Nevaer their OK.

"Listing people's phone numbers and personal identifying information without
their permission is unacceptable," said Stephen Push, who lost his wife when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon and is treasurer of Families of September 11. "It's an invasion of privacy. I applaud the efforts of artists and historians to document this tragedy, but it should not be done at the cost of invading the privacy of families who are suffering."

Nevaer counters that he tried to contact the families of all those pictured on the 210 posters, but only secured the consent of about 180 families.

And while some families, Nevaer said, have "received thousands of crank phone calls" over the past six months from teenage boys saying things like, "'I know where your daughter is, she's in the basement of the World Trade Center,'" many still hold out hopes that some stranger will contact them with news of a loved one's final moments. They want to have their relatives included in 'Missing,' Nevaer said in his defense, so that people outside of New York can know the victims' faces.

When the exhibit finishes its tour, Nevaer plans to donate the posters to a real museum, along with condolence books visitors are asked to sign at each stop along the way. But so far, he has no firm arrangements with any institution to accept the fliers. He also says he plans to take the show to New York City, though he's still waiting to get a viewing space lined up.

He should keep waiting. As long as the photocopied posters remain on display on
the streets of the city and within its transportation hubs, it's far too soon to pluck at New Yorkers' wounded skin and show them "framed like this for the first time…in Soho," as Nevaer said he hopes to do. And it will never be right to show them again, in any city, with as little dignity as they have been accorded in Washington.

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