Terrorism museum hypes paranoia, visual pyrotechnics over education

Television screens depicting acts of terrorism. (Photo/Eva Enns)
Television screens depicting acts of terrorism. (Photo/Eva Enns)

It was like a theme-park ride, except with bombs and bodily injuries. The nation’s premiere anti-terrorism museum opened in Denver on Tuesday, and somewhere between exhibit malfunctions and violent television panoramas reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, there was presumably some sort of message. But it all seemed to be more of an unintended satire on post-911 culture in the United States than an exhibit sparking an intelligent discourse on terrorism.

The museum’s lobby was located inside a unremarkable concrete building, and looked like it was inspired by Star Wars. Yellow neon arrows marked the gray linoleum floor, pointing visitors to the ticket booth. There were three large television screens placed in a horizontal row, with each screen showing a fluctuating collage of holographic images, most of which were faces of human beings crying or wincing in pain. This was the first introduction a visitor got to the museum, officially named for the Center for Empowered Living and Learning (longhand for ‘The Cell’), a Denver-based nonprofit organization with the stated mission to educate people about the roots of terrorism and how to stop it.

Next, another display welcomed patrons to The Cell’s first and only exhibit, called “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism.” The display included a large pane of cracked glass with an accompanying message warning readers how terrorism “shatters” lives and telling them that “throughout this exhibit you’ll accompany one of these shattered lives.” Sure enough, when visitors purchased their tickets, they were given plastic white “smart cards” which carried the real life stories of terrorism victims. The cards could be scanned at a variety of kiosks throughout the exhibit, with each location revealing a little more about the victims’ stories and whether they lived or died.

The "door to terrorism" at the CELL. (Photo/Eva Enns)
The 'door to terrorism' at the CELL. (Photo/Eva Enns)
With cards in hand, patrons were told to line up behind a futuristic-looking sliding door with the word “Terrorism” printed on it. Once a staff member pushed a specific button behind the ticket booth, the door opened, ushering visitors into a small room where the walls were lined with 19 television screens in two different sizes. The doors shut behind, locking the visitors in the room.

A presentation on the history of terrorism started on all of the screens, featuring ominous footage of a diverse array of organizations, ranging from white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary group that fights for indigenous rights in Mexico. Interjected between the images were taped interviews with urbane-looking terrorism experts who speculated on what exactly causes an individual to become radicalized and politically violent.

It would have been easier to pay attention to the 10-minute presentation if it wasn’t so hot in the cramped room. By the time the program came off the screens, visitors were just happy to escape into a different exhibit room that didn’t make them sweat, and they were able to do so because another door automatically slid open after the presentation ended.

The "Tools of Terror" wall, which includes a guitar and a shoe. (Photo/Eva Enns)
The 'Tools of Terror' wall, which includes a guitar and a shoe. (Photo/Eva Enns)
The next room featured various models of terrorist weaponry, including life-size depictions of a suicide bomber vest, a pipe bomb and a roadside explosive device. Right across from the models was a painted mural with the large heading “Tools of Terrorism.” Around the title were pictures of rocket launchers and AK-47s blended with more innocuous items like a guitar, a small pocketknife and one of those electronic “giga pet” toys that hasn’t been seen since the mid-1990s. This room also featured one of the first card kiosks, introducing patrons to their victims. The Colorado Independent pulled Yonatan Netanyahu, a Jewish man who had a happy childhood in the United States according to the first communique from the card reader.

Moving into the most climactic portion of the exhibit, visitors walked into another room where they were surrounded by 30 large television screens in the dark. Again, doors behind visitors shut. This was supposed to be the coup de grâce of the entire show, the actual simulation of a terrorist attack in Denver. After a few seconds, the screens turned on and worked in conjunction to create the realistic surroundings of familiar city backdrops like the 16th Street Mall and areas near the Denver Art Museum where The Cell exhibit is located.

A picture of the terrorist simulation in action. (Photo/Eva Enns)
A picture of the terrorist simulation in action. (Photo/Eva Enns)
For a few moments, visitors could watch a simulated crowd of people on the television screens walk and converse around them. Then all hell broke loose. The audience heard a loud explosion, although the audience was probably imagining something more cataclysmic. All of the screens became snow for a second before they all start to broadcast frequent spats of imagery similar to what first greeted museum visitors. There are bloody bodies, faces wretched with agony, panicking crowds and the sound of desperate screams, all of it surrounding the visitors, who stand exchanging confused glances in the ricocheting light of the two-minute simulated attack.

Once the lights came on, a new door opened, leading dazed patrons into another exhibit room with a new kiosk. The victim named Netanyahu was a supporter of Israel and an elite member of the Israel Defense Forces, the machine said. Along one of the walls was a “myth and fact” display game about terrorism. One plastic panel stated a detail about terrorism, and visitors were supposed to guess if it was true or false before pulling back the panel to reveal the answer.

“Strong action against terrorist infrastructure will only increase terrorism,” read one of the panels. That’s a myth, according to the exhibit, which claims implementation of “strong action” has helped to destabilize terrorists, though the meaning of the term is left ambiguous.

The final room and an exit to the exhibit featured one last kiosk station along with one last big television screen on which Denver mayor John Hickenlooper and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — financial contributors to the museum — espoused their personal insights into terrorism. But most patrons just wanted to swipe their cards and find out if their victims made it or not. That was a problem. When The Colorado Independent and other visitors tried to use the kiosks, the machines just ended up eating the cards. Tech support staff with the museum jumped in and tried to fix the problem, offering visitors new cards to scan, but with the diversity in victim stories, it was impossible for most patrons to find out the fate of their initial victim.

If the museum’s objective was to educate the public about terrorism, the message was completely lost in the hysterical media simulations and paranoid tone of many exhibit displays. The kiosks were supposed to be able to collect contact details to reach out to visitors who requested more information about stopping terrorism, but that feature wasn’t working either.

In the end, it wasn’t the fact that The Cell was plagued by technical problems and an incoherent message that made the museum seem more like an entertaining curiosity than a serious depiction of reality and history. It was the way the museum handled terrorism, painting the issue with an all too simple black-and-white plot of good guys against the bad guys, that made it seem so dated, even to kids who were in high school after the 9/11 attacks happened.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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