Jan Seidler Ramirez ’73 curates National Sept. 11 Museum
Jan Seidler Ramirez ’73 is chief curator and director of collections for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. An American studies scholar, she has curated, researched and managed major collections in Boston and New York for the past 30 years. The Memorial Museum, which opened in May, recently celebrated its millionth visitor.
How were you involved in the arts at Dartmouth?
JSR: I would say in two phases. The first was as an undergraduate taking art history classes, mostly American art history. It was very much a part of my humanities exposure and training. I was an English major, but I was really an American studies major.
[In] phase two, many years after I entered the museum field, Dartmouth actually found me after the Hood Museum came into reality. They had a board of overseers, similar to a board of trustees, and they wanted a few of these spots taken up by Dartmouth graduates involved in the arts. It took you out of your Class, so to speak, and connected you to this whole network of graduates who were interested in or passionate about the arts.
How did you start as a curator?
JSR: I was pushed right into the deep end, and it was sink or swim. The summer after I graduated, I was lucky enough to get a public affairs internship. I went to Boston’s City Hall and knocked on the door at the [Boston] Cultural Council. The planets aligned, because this was around the time they were preparing for the bicentennial, and Boston was the seat of so much of that. The city of Boston decided they would do three major exhibits: Boston in the 20th century, Boston in the 18th century as the hub of the American Revolution and 19th-century Boston, the Boston of great literature and cultural impact. I was actually offered up to that project as a researcher. It was such an incredible opportunity.
For me, the light bulbs began to go off. Outside of class, books and documentaries, there was this whole other stage for presenting stories, and it was in museums. You tell your stories through the original material and cultural expressions of the period. My principal area had been 19th-century American literature and this shifted me into a new field for academia: curatorial culture studies, which [holds that] an object has historical potency if you understand how to ask questions of it. I went to Boston University for American Studies, and as part of the coursework, I had to serve a six-month practicum where you had to take academic knowledge and begin to have practical exposure. I was assigned to work at the [Museum of Fine Arts] in Boston. They had a new chief curator who had the goal of illustrating a story. I got to work on a “Paul Revere’s Boston[: 1735-1818]” exhibit and also on one about the American Far West. Once I was bitten by that bug, there was no going back. The assistant curator of that department was taking a leave, and the chief curator asked me if I would take her place for three years. It was a dream.
What parts of your job do you find most interesting or challenging?
JSR: I would say that 9/11, as a time-stamped event, basically lasts about 102 minutes at the center of the storm. My interests have never been getting in so deep into those 102 minutes that you lose what came before and after. It was an event that peeled back who we were at the beginning of the 21st century. How did our society work? How did it work in New York City? How did it work nationally? How did it work globally? It’s also about how Americans tell their story. It’s about historical themes. To understand 9/11, you have to understand Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Gettysburg, and you have to understand the narrative of the American Revolution.
It is an event that absolutely also peels back the vulnerability and important global interdependence of the 21st century. There’s this powerful awareness — about one-third of the world’s population is said to have experienced 9/11. Unfortunately, the death statistics include people from 92 different nations. That says something, too, about how Americans own this narrative. Unfortunately, terror has been a theme and scourge that has deep roots in the world, and there are many societies that endured this type of assault over time. It’s very emotional work, and it’s not for everybody. This job has taught me so much about human compassion and the power of a community to respond, help and to hold out a hand to be resourceful in a time of crisis. The legacy of 9/11 has some very positive stories that people should take great comfort in. Hopefully they find this in our balance as a museum.
We had this question: if we were building a museum about death, or about a world that learned something about its capability to help and be generous and kind? We are mindful of how the memorial and community sensibility shapes what we can do here. It is so raw, it is so soon, so solemn, so sacred, and those have been very important contingencies that are a part of our decision making.
This interview has been edited and condensed.