Secular cathedrals

Museums - Catherine Croft on how New York's curators are documenting the city's disaster

Museum curators and directors are not the first people one imagines rushing in to help in the wake of a crisis such as the destruction of the World Trade Center but, in the weeks since 11 September, New York's museums have created a vital role for themselves. In the immediate aftermath, they opened free of charge to provide somewhere for the uncomprehending residents of the city to seek refuge and meaning. This is in tune with the recent tagging of an increasingly diverse range of US museums as "cathedrals for secular culture".

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, located on the Upper East Side in an affluent world superficially untouched by the tragedy, charged itself with this spiritual role in an open letter published in the New York Times: "At a time of loss and profound dislocation, art museums offer a powerful antidote to hopelessness: their collections testify to the permanence of creative aspiration and achievement and offer solace, affirmation and a spirit of renewal so essential to our recovery . . ." However, the special events that were swiftly organised did not draw directly on the Met's fantastic range of paintings and objects. Instead, visitors were offered "Sounds of Solace: music for reflection", lunchtime concerts of classical music, and "Poetry for the Human Spirit", readings from the works of Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, W H Auden and others. The museum's associate director for education, Kent Lydecker, does not rule out organising a display on the subject of loss, or even death, in the future, but feels that it would be premature to do this immediately. It's almost as if objects are considered too powerful.

In contrast, directly across Central Park, the New York Historical Society has assembled a collection of objects and loans of direct relevance. A book of condolence placed prominently in the ground-floor hallway rests on a plinth hiding a tape recorder, which plays extracts from an archive recording of William Feehan, the fire chief who was killed in the rescue mission. His photograph is accompanied by a work by an artist who benefited from a studio scheme in the World Trade Center, along with a First World War scene of New York draped in American flags. An 1857 carved figure of Harry Howard, the chief engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department, stands against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes that hung outside a New York home as President Lincoln's funeral procession passed.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was prevented by a mayor's decree from reopening for two days because it was so close to the World Trade Center. Once back in action, it swiftly issued a statement. "Our mission to promote tolerance and historical perspective . . . compels us to action," it announced. Staff will make a special effort to invite local Muslims and Arabs to participate in programmes, and, among other initiatives, the museum will use a media presentation comparing Jewish, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Buddhist and Muslim mourning rituals (which it already has) to "establish a dialogue programme on religious diversity and tolerance".

The iconic power of the burnt and twisted remnant of the World Trade Center has raised questions about how to memorialise the site. The Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, has called for New York to "make a commitment now to preserving the searing fragment of ruin so frequently photographed and televised that it has become nearly as familiar to us as the building that once stood there". But a decision also needs to be taken on how to document and preserve the ephemera of New York's tragedy. Across the city, politely worded notices inform mourners that flowers and tributes laid in squares and parks (such as the tiny garden in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village) will be moved to the official site in Union Square and will be "archived by the Smithsonian" if the weather turns bad.

"Missing, worked on the 110th floor", "Has small tattoo on left buttock", "Was not wearing sunglasses on September 11th" - to curators, these demotic messages are the museum objects of the future, to be retrieved and catalogued before they get damaged. Curators operate in a highly competitive market, and often have to bid against rival museums for the objects of their desire. But an unseemly rush to start collecting will not be welcomed.

On the evening before the terrorist attacks was the opening of a show of photographs by Harry Burton, the official photographer of the Met's 1920s archaeological trips, which culminated in the opening up of Tutankhamen's tomb. The reverence with which the pharaoh's body was interred and prepared for its journey to the afterlife makes a bleak contrast to the swift and undiscriminating entombment of 11 September. Looking at Burton's photographs, visitors can "view the dead unselfconsciously and, in so doing, contemplate our own beliefs about the nature of flesh and of the soul". Not surprisingly, the exhibition is proving to be popular.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world