9/11 museum to retool its research rules after criticism

The 9/11 museum in New York City is backing off uncommon restrictions on researchers after complaints that the institution was stifling scholarship.

Until at least Aug. 21, the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum’s website detailed “scholarly research rules and regulations” for access to its collection. They required researchers to let museum staffers review their work before publication and to adopt “any text changes" the museum proposed as a condition of getting the institution’s “consent” to publish.

The rules said the institution was entitled to pursue “legal remedies” if a researcher didn’t comply, though the museum says it never did so and is now scrapping the review requirements and legal threat.

Early on, “our paramount concern was the misuse of donated materials to the museum for purposes of misrepresentation” by people trying to prove conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terror attacks, museum Executive Vice President Clifford Chanin said.

“We’ve learned from our experience,” he said.

Archives, museums and their donors vary in what they ask of researchers, but experts say the 9/11 museum’s rules seemed unusually onerous.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” said Stephanie Brown, who teaches museum studies at Johns Hopkins University and has been a museum director, curator and archivist. She said the policy could prompt scholars to look elsewhere for material: “It just feels very micro-managing."

Indeed, at least two researchers have balked at the rules in the last few years, said Chanin, who said the museum agreed to the interviews anyway and began reconsidering the policy after the latest scholarly objection came this summer.

Williams College sociology professor Christina Simko inquired in July about interviewing staffers for a project on terrorism-related museums. She says she was willing to share an eventual draft for feedback but wouldn’t give the museum the authority essentially to edit her work.

“I was especially surprised that an institution of national memory would maintain that, because freedom of speech is a core democratic value,” said Simko, who said she’s pleased the museum quickly reconsidered.

Meanwhile, an attorney for two filmmakers who gave a trove of 9/11-related video to the museum — but later made a critical documentary about it — accused it in an Aug. 13 letter of “restricting free historic research, exploration and use.”

“We don’t think there should be any restrictions on what people publish,” filmmaker Steven Rosenbaum said in an interview.

He and his wife and co-director, Pamela Yoder, tangled with the museum this year over its objections to their documentary, “The Outsider.” While the museum’s review of their film was negotiated separately from the research rules, Rosenbaum argues that both show the institution wants “to control the story” of 9/11.

“There’s a fact pattern here that’s really troubling," he said, for “the place where America remembers this story and investigates it.”

(The museum’s top lawyer, meanwhile, criticized Rosenbaum and Yoder in an Aug. 27 letter for their own restrictions on the donated video: They collect licensing fees from anyone else seeking to use the footage in films or other work. Rosenbaum says that’s “beyond irrelevant” and there’s no comparison between a small film company and a nonprofit museum’s archives.)

The Sept. 11 museum has the complex responsibility of serving as both memorial and a place for education and research about an event with living survivors. Still, some other institutions with similar missions don’t ask as much of scholars.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum’s website calls for researchers to submit summaries of their projects and where they plan to publish, but not for a review in advance. Nor does the U.S. Holocaust Memorial & Museum in Washington, where the website simply asks applicants the purpose of their research, such as coursework, a book or genealogy.

“Access should be available as unencumbered as humanly possible,” says Michael Berenbaum, an American Jewish University professor of Jewish studies who oversaw the creation of the Holocaust museum. He favors “maximum openness, minimum restrictions, even if it means sensitive material.”

The Sept. 11 museum began fielding research requests long before its 2014 opening, said Chanin, who has been involved since 2005. He couldn’t specify when the scholarly research rules took effect but said they were an effort to “systematize” the institution’s dealings with researchers seeking access to materials or interviews with staffers.

The museum has asked researchers to see their work before publication but has never insisted on it, tried to block publication or taken legal action, Chanin said. Few scholarly requests, if any, ended up raising alarms about “misuse" or misquoting, he added.

Deciding the policy “is something we need to move on from,” museum leaders have taken it off the website and plan soon to draft a new one, Chanin said.

He expects it will distinguish between scholarly requests for interviews and materials and will ask researchers for basics on their project and what they’re looking for — but will no longer call for a formal outline and interview questions, require pre-publication approval or talk about taking legal action against researchers.