The Algorithms at the Heart of the New September 11 Memorial Museum

The National September 11 Memorial Museum opens to the public tomorrow here in New York City after more than a decade of complications, and amidst not always civil disagreements over what the museum should be in the first place—what its narrative intentions might be and whether or not it could ever be possible to achieve them.


Is the purpose of the museum to celebrate the heroism of the people who survived the attacks that day, to vilify those who committed them, to mourn the victims who were killed, to offer political commentary on the resulting U.S. response—or all of the above?

As the New York Times writes this morning in a review of the new museum, "Was it going to be primarily a historical document, a monument to the dead or a theme-park-style tourist attraction? How many historical museums are built around an active repository of human remains, still being added to? How many cemeteries have a $24 entrance fee and sell souvenir T-shirts? How many theme parks bring you, repeatedly, to tears?"

The curatorial challenge here—of orchestrating a space and an experience where the complexity of the terror attacks could be told, a kind of museology of catastrophe—is incredible, if for no other reason than the number of competing perspectives that so actively vie for representation in the artifacts, panels, wall texts, and even structure of the museum itself.

The actual halls, nested in an underground space literally on the exposed bedrock of Manhattan, offer a particularly constrained architectural setting for a museum. Down there in the foundations of the city, semi-obliterated fire trucks and ruined columns from the old towers now stand like relics, and the famous "slurry wall"—effectively a huge dam that keeps the Hudson River from flooding the site and that was almost breached on 9/11 when the towers came down—has become part of the museum's displays, as if we've cut down through the skin of the island to find bone.

The Museology of Catastrophe

Describing all of this, and coming up with a coherent narrative that can make sense of 9/11 itself, is a daunting if not impossible challenge. In fact, part of the museum's main interpretive goal was simply to find a way to tell the story of 9/11 without pretending to have forged the definitive account. How be a museum of an event without dominating that event, without closing the door on future revisions, news, or developments? How do you sum up or, for that matter, begin to tell the story of 9/11, given its ongoing geopolitical repercussions and wide-ranging global side-effects?


To solve this problem, the museum brought on the New York City-based design firm Local Projects, headed by Jake Barton. Barton spoke to Gizmodo about his firm's work at the museum and the narrative difficulties presented there, explaining that this was an opportunity to experiment with a whole new way of constructing stories.

After all, the technology and informational display of "collaborative story-telling" is part of the firm's core expertise—so how could this be scaled up to approach one of the 21st century's most defining moments?


History by Algorithm

For their major piece in the space, called Timescapes, Local Projects relied on a deceptively simple approach: an algorithmic sorting of news feeds and a projection of clear, wall-sized super-graphics showing correlations between terms.


These include place names, historic figures, airplane flight numbers, military operations, and more, always implying but never quite explicitly stating a connection, just an algorithmically sorted stream of information emanating from that one day in history, pulsing outward in a radiant starburst of keywords.


"The algorithms are a tour de force," Barton explained to Gizmodo, "but the legal agreements have just been incredible."

He was referring to the byzantine task of getting legal access to a complete feed of the daily news from 9/11 to the present, and continuing into the future—more than 2 million full-text articles—with the effect that, even in the years to come, these algorithms will be accumulating and sorting through new data, a kind of narrative super-computer whirring away in a haze of articles and TV reports. "It's an interesting mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis," he said, "sequencing those clusters over time."


"All these patterns start to appear," Barton said, although they are not necessarily internal to the material; seeing connections is just part of what he called our "incredible predilection to be these narrative-construction machines," finding connections and stories in places even when there is only random data.

In fact, Barton's description of the project sounded at times more like incantation than pure history, a narrative magic of the matching algorithm on display for museum visitors.


He explained that clusters of search terms relevant to 9/11 and recognized by the algorithm are sorted into timelines; some of the resulting hits even include "nothing that a curator would have put in," Barton added, suggesting a provocative new role for algorithms in the museological process itself, "a way for the curatorial staff to access a machine for the contextualization of the effects of 9/11."


A Machine for the Contextualization of the Effects of 9/11

Patterns play a big role, coming up again and again while we spoke. "You're suddenly confronted by this amazing pattern," Barton said later, describing the mesmerizing effect of watching the displays change and develop, blooming with secondary connections and new terms.


"For instance, in 2005," he said, "all the airlines start to go broke—and that's not directly connected to 9/11—but the algorithm just sort of found that and included it because of the search terms on those airlines."


The overall approach was what he called narrative future-proofing: making the museum resistant to obsolescence through its own intelligent flexibility, its ability to absorb and make sense of the future, whether this means events yet to occur or news reports still unpublished.

"You don't want to pretend that 9/11 ended in 2002 with the first anniversary," Barton said. "So how do you frame the post-9/11 world and play a productive role in discussing it?"


When I asked him why the visual display of what is, in effect, algorithmic journalism would be the best approach for that, he replied from an organizational point of view. "I think this comes out of an overarching curiosity, if not fascination, with what news happened when, and what we—in the biggest sense of that word—were thinking at the time." The walls of the museum thus light up with projected constellations of related terms, always suggesting without ever definitively stating a web of significance and connection for the things on display.

A Generative Museum

As the algorithm learns—or at least absorbs and includes—new terms over time, it will also continue to highlight new connections of its own, patterns and clusters lurking beneath the surface like a landscape emerging from mist.


In the process, Local Projects' work here offers a glimpse of where museums might be headed and the ways in which algorithmic curating could fundamentally change how institutions devoted to public memory perform their roles. It suggests a new era of generative museums, spaces of narrative production that operate even without direct curatorial intervention.

To see Timescapes for yourself, and to tour the incredible architectural space of the museum, book a trip to the National September 11 Memorial Museum. [Local Projects]


Timescapes was originally developed by Local Projects in collaboration with Ben Rubin, Mark Hansen, and Jer Thorp.


Nicola Twilley

Totally fascinating! I immediately want to know more about the parameters of the source data: is it English-language only? does it include social media as well as mainstream TV and print outlets? how is it balanced geographically?

And, of course, it's interesting to speculate about how the algorithm might itself evolve, and also somehow be made visible as a contingent set of steps anchored to a particular time and worldview.

Although the 9/11 Museum strikes me as one of the more nightmarish curatorial briefs on the planet, it's amazing to see that such an interesting and vital conversation about the larger question of how we shape narratives about events, and how we can keep them open, as opposed to closed, has come out of it. Kudos to Jake!