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Patrick Springer, Published September 11 2011

NDSU cultural anthropologist collects images, aura of ground zero

FARGO – People flock to ground zero, and many leave behind a commemorative memento as a makeshift shrine to the dead of 9/11.

A recurrent theme: a replica, be it a sculpture, painting or children’s drawing, of the iconic twin towers, which fell 10 years ago today in terrorist attacks.

Joy Sather-Wagstaff has an impressive photo collection of hundreds of those impromptu shrines and mementos. As a cultural anthropologist at North Dakota State University, she’s made many academic pilgrimages to the site for an ongoing research project.

She is interested in tourism at memorial sites. At first blush, the idea of tourism involving hallowed ground strikes many as a bit tawdry, Sather-Wagstaff said Saturday.

“Anything that smells of tourism somehow diminishes its importance,” she said in a telephone interview from New York City.

But she’s found that most of those who visit sites like ground zero in New York, the Oklahoma City National Memorial Site, or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum do so with reverence.

“It’s very sobering,” she said.

And many feel compelled to leave something behind in remembrance of the dead, a cultural phenomenon that has grown since 9/11 but that Sather-Wagstaff traces back to celebrity deaths, including Grace Kelly, Elvis and Princess Diana.

The outpourings of grief and affection for each, often taking tangible form through the placement of flowers or objects as memorials, were broadcast around the globe.

The practice has only grown since the 9/11 attacks a decade ago, said Sather-Wagstaff. As the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the events hold huge cultural significance.

But many people routinely visit memorial sites of one kind or another without thinking about it, including battlefields or war monuments, as well as historical or art museums.

Art museums? “They are homages to the great works of artists who are no longer with us,” Sather-Wagstaff said.

The site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood in Manhattan has evolved over the decade since the attacks, through construction of a new center and a formal memorial site.

But the constant and ever-changing makeshift memorials left at ground zero are themselves a work of art and an impromptu, informal memorial, sometimes as ephemeral as the weather.

The outpouring of grief is ongoing, amplified by anniversaries but not defined by the calendar.

“It is still raw for a lot of people,” Sather-Wagstaff said. “It’s hard to forget it. We’re constantly reminded of it.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522