It doesn't deal much with the messy, ongoing aftermath of the attacks of that day. It doesn't present the world's most nuanced portrait of the rise of
Some critics have panned the below-ground-zero museum for its literalism, sometimes in contrast to
In other words, it doesn't satisfy everybody with an interest in the museum, which is to say, almost everybody. Given the institution's long and difficult gestation as it struggled to balance the interests of victims' family members,
But experiencing the museum first hand a couple of weeks ago, and thinking and reading about it since, I remain an admirer of what is accomplished within its walls on both an emotional and an intellectual level.
You don't go to something calling itself a 9/11 museum in order to avoid confrontation with the events of that day or the artifacts that help explain it. If you want a symbolic experience, that's what the memorial up above is for, and it delivers powerful suggestions of absence and continuation as water cascades into pits in the outlines of the missing
You go to a museum of that title because you want, in some way, to relive the day, maybe as a sign of respect to the victims, maybe because, almost 13 years on, you feel the details -- the facts or the feelings -- slipping from your memory.
This museum piles detail upon detail, especially in the 25,000-square-foot permanent historical exhibition. This is the one that
Layman Design came in relatively late in the process, but earned credit from museum director
But before you get to that exhibition, you follow an ingenious path into the terror. The museum's entrance -- tickets are sold by time of entry -- is at ground level, toward the northeast corner of the 8-acre site in lower
Even as you enter, you see pieces of the twin towers: the "tridents," iconic remnants of the
The gift shop resides on this floor, not on an exit path but off to one side so that going in is a matter of choice. The items are not uniformly reverential (raincoats, neckties) but the overall tone isn't nakedly commercial, either. While a high proportion of what is for sale is books about the attacks, it seems unfair to fault someone who, after being moved by the museum's content, chooses to remember their visit through a T-shirt or a pen instead.
The museumgoer's journey proceeds from outside the attacks, where almost all of us were, to the epicenter of them. First visitors hear audio recordings and see photos of people across the country responding to the news of
A gently pitched ramp leads down into the main body of the museum, like a descent into catacombs. (The lighting, too, is muted like in a cathedral, and the quasi-religious feelings will continue.) Along this route, the story begins to be told, but in fragments. There is a photograph of the still-tall towers at night, for instance, adjacent to a massive steel beam from one of them bent to a seemingly impossible degree by the impact of American Airlines Flight 11.
A turn in the ramp allows for a long pause to take in the imposing slab, the Slurry Wall, that dominates Foundation Hall, the museum's most open and monumental gallery, below. The wall, engineering wizardry in its day, was built to hold back
Ahead of the main floor stands one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. The Survivors' Stairs, named for their role as the path that hundreds of attack survivors took to safety, is perched alongside a new staircase. People walked these actual steps, the location of which protected them from falling debris.
The museum is structured so that the most harrowing features can, like the gift shop, be avoided. A sensitive visitor -- a child, perhaps -- might stay only in the outer galleries, dominated by large-scale pieces: a scorched and twisted fire truck, for instance, or the broadcast antenna from atop one of the buildings mangled into something sculptural.
On the main, bottom level, four floors below the street, designers have preserved the perimeter foundations of the towers, too, with walkways that let you connect with the lost buildings kinetically, by tracing their very outlines.
These remnants help give the museum a distinctive, dank smell. The dirt from the foundations and the water leaking (safely, we are told) from the bottom of the Slurry Wall combine to, again, remind you of medieval catacombs.
Within the perimeters of the towers -- and, remember, directly beneath the memorial waterfalls up at plaza level -- are the museum's two most visceral features.
The story of the day is told in dispassionate language, but the overall effect is wrenching. This is where visitors can hear voice-mail messages for loved ones left by doomed travelers on United Airlines Flight 93, taken down in
"We just had a plane crash into the upper floors of
As you walk though, looking, for instance, at charred computer diskettes and office papers salvaged from the scene, the contrast between the quotidian and the horrific, and the thin line that separated them, is everywhere.
Some moments just don't work. The video projection of United Flight 175 striking the
An unfortunate side effect of putting this display in an interior space, and stuffing it with so very many artifacts that people want to linger over, is that it is the only space in the museum that feels crowded. Out in the open air of Foundation Hall there is more time to contemplate.
In the historical exhibition, you might find yourself ducking into one of the alcoves just for a little respite from the crowd, yet that is also where some of the darkest material resides. One such is the section on people who jumped, which the designer Layman handled in part by showing a brief series of still photographs of people in the air, at above eye level. Other alcoves offer a sort of audio theater, telling emotional stories, for instance, of how people did or didn't get out of the buildings.
Not only can visitors avoid these areas, but there are multiple early exit points from the historical exhibition, as well, should it become overwhelming.
There is little doubt that the
The historical exhibition, in particular, makes the events of the
But a primary role of such a museum is not just to jog the memories of people who experienced the attacks and may fear they have forgotten or grown a touch complacent. It will remind them -- as, say, they stifle a sob -- of how thin the scab is, how close to the surface the day remains.
The museum's greater duty is to document, precisely, in detail that may seem overwhelming, the events for people in the future who may not believe that such things could happen. They have. They can.
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