Simon Schama speech at 9/11 Memorial Sculpture unveiling, London

[Originally posted April 23rd, 2015]

Speech by Simon Schama

 You can listen to and download the full speech here

Transcript of speech

Hello dear friends.

This wonderful moment in which redemption and grief are equally mixed has finally come about.

Jews like myself are about to celebrate Passover in a couple of weeks and we are commanded on that momentous evening to remember Judaism – the first religion in which memory was a requirement, it appears in the Bible in the book of Exodus - and the memory we are required to sustain by telling stories to our children are both of disaster and freedom, of horror and of liberation. And so I remember on a day like this remembrance and storytelling are the flesh and blood of history.

I remember the plume of filthy yellow smoke - I was very much in New York then - rising over downtown, and I remember the appalling rain of particulate dirt that hung around the city, for months actually not just weeks.  I remember taking my son to a downtown theatre, theatres were gallantly open, anybody in New York will know that marvellous determination to carry on living as best we could in the midst of a trauma, and I remember photographs, photocopied images of the missing that had been tied to lamp posts and scotch-taped to shop windows that had fallen free in the September winds making a kind of river of lost faces in the gutter of New York over which we were careful to try not to tread.

So all those memories of unimaginable horror will be present at this place and are embodied in Miya Ando’s extraordinary sculpture – and I also want to pay tribute to Miya and everybody responsible. In an age where contemporary art is very often about, if you are lucky, the quick hit of wit, it is possible also to make great modern and contemporary art which is about something important, something serious, something transforming, and that’s what Miya has done.

But she has done it because it is not just a kind of brutally tragic utterance made out of the debris of the World Trade Centre but there is also as you will see another aspect to the piece which is a reflection, and the reflection is of where we are now dear friends, of trains travelling past, of the great pulse of the city, the most brilliantly cosmopolitan city in the world - forgive me New Yorkers for saying this, Boris will like to hear this.  So it is appropriate that we will see the reflection of sky and movement and the life of the people about us.

And I want to finally say this: I do want to honour the educational project that too is about a generation.  Cithero says “those who do not know where they have come from will not understand wither they go” and that could indeed be the motto of every historian and could be the motto of the 9/11 commission.  I want to say this, that the history that we should teach, in my view, will not simply be a place and a piece of hand wringing piety.  The young have only so much piety to which they can respond.

There is another aspect of the Western tradition – that didn’t just happen in the West but we should not be apologetic about it - it was the invention of an ideology which made it possible for people of different beliefs to share a society, indeed a city, without the obligation of killing each other.  That was the message in John Milton’s Areopagitica, that was the message in John Locke’s tracts on liberty and toleration, that was the message in Voltaire’s Discourse and Toleration, of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  These are thrilling documents.  The nineteenth century speaks to this, to us to rebirth to the things we should champion, so we should bring people here to commemorate but also to educate to celebrate the heroism, the heroism, of co-existence.

Speech by Simon Schama, Professor of History and Art History, Columbia University NY, on the unveiling of ‘Since 9/11′ at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London (17th March  2015)