Vectors in Memory: Contemplating the Legal Aspects of Preservation

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Cast in grey steel re-forged from metal recovered of the Twin Towers, Virgil’s immortal words hold a solemn vigil over the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Framed by 2,983 squares, each a unique shade of blue and representing each of the fallen victims of the 2001 and 1993 attacks, the Memorial and Museum truly impress upon visitors that remembrance is the highest honor we can pay to the victims and heroes of September 11, 2001. 

Robert Sein, the Director of the Mattone Family Institute for Real Estate Law, along with Mattone Institute Fellows Joseph Carlo (‘20), Steven Cecere (‘20), Kayla Dimatos (‘20), Andrew Fisher (‘20), Fiona Hogan (‘21), and Alexander Woo (‘20), along with Mattone Institute Scholar, Meghan Paola (‘22) visited the Memorial and Museum on Friday, October 18, 2019. We were greeted by Charlie Dunne (‘02), the Museum’s Executive Vice President of Security, Fire and Life Safety, who gave us a tour of the Museum. Later, we were joined by Noelle Lilien (‘99), the Museum’s General Counsel, Executive Vice President, and Board Secretary. 

During the tour, Mr. Dunne explained the unique design and aesthetic choices that went into the development of the Memorial and Museum, as well as the substantial commitment required to continuously maintain the premises. For example, the material used to construct the reflecting pools is susceptible to scratching and requires frequent polishing. Maintenance, however, as Mr. Dunne explained, must be completed at night in order to respect mourning visitors and to not detract from the humbling experience.

Entering the Museum, visitors feel as if they are going through airport security, with metal detectors and police dogs present. Mr. Dunne assured us that crime is essentially non-existent at the Memorial and Museum, but there is a comforting presence of officers from both the New York Police Department and the Port Authority Police Department. As we began our decent to the Museum that lies seventy feet below street level, on one side hung flags representing all the nations of victims, and on the other side was a “trident,” one of the many that once stood at the base of the Twin Towers. Mr. Dunne pointed out the significant artifacts recovered from the rubble and detailed the logistical difficulties of their preservation, from paper that disintegrates to a set of stairs that helped many escape to safety. 

After we concluded our self-guided tour of the Museum, we met with Ms. Lilien, who explained to us her job responsibilities as the Museum’s General Counsel. Ms. Lilien joined the Museum just after its construction began and was therefore involved in every major step of its development. It was fascinating to hear about the myriad of legal and non-legal issues that Ms. Lilien continues to work on, from navigating political obligations to negotiating media rights, with all decisions complicated by enormous—and at times conflicting—political, public, and emotional considerations. 

As an amateur historian, I have always toyed with the idea of working in a museum, and having the chance to meet with Ms. Lilien was a unique and invaluable opportunity in understanding what it means to work in a museum. Ms. Lilien provided insightful advice to remain open to opportunities and to maintain professionalism, especially when you never know who your boss may be one day. 

This year marked the eighteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and the Memorial and Museum stand as a powerful opportunity to learn about the lives of the men, women and children who were lost. This year also marks the first year in which the majority of first-year college students were born after the attacks and grew up in a country in a constant state of national emergency and war. Most of my classmates at St. John’s Law were too young to fully comprehend the significance of that day. As for myself, I was living in Hong Kong at the time, preparing to go to bed just as the first plane struck the North Tower and asleep when the South Tower fell. I recall waking up the next morning to find my father transfixed in front of the television; he had stayed up all night watching the tragic events unfold. 

For those of us so geographically and temporally removed from the events of September 11th, the visit to the Memorial and Museum was a moving and humbling experience. The voices of the victims in the Twin Towers, the survivors of the Pentagon, and the heroes of Flight 93 echoed the hall of the Museum, drawing an indelible link between the past and present. 

The visit to the Memorial and Museum was a unique opportunity to better understand the history of New York and areas of the law that are not often discussed within the law school. We are truly grateful to Mr. Dunne and Ms. Lilien for taking the time to meet and speak with us, and for Rob Sein and his commitment to providing students with extraordinary opportunities to engage with our wide array of St. John’s Law alumni. 

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