How does a museum tell a story of such breadth, such gravity, such sadness?
I’d never visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum until this past Thursday. No particular reason. Twenty years ago, I was steeped in 9/11, as any patriot, as anyone with a heart, would be. It was so sad, so unnecessary, predictable but a shock. It’s certainly defined the times since. The cops and firemen who died, the wrenching phone calls and voicemail messages, the jumpers, and so many lost young people make 9/11 and what followed harrowing and devastating.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum, as it’s called, opened in 2014. With the 20th anniversary this weekend, and with the unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan, I wanted to go and felt I needed to go. I wanted to test sadness and memory against what I thought, at least as I planned my visit, might be September 11’s denouement. I went disgusted by our government’s incompetence, deceit, and betrayal, from the days leading up to September 11, 2001, to today, to now. I went as a critic, curious about how a story of this breadth, this gravity, this sadness is told. How do I square this roiling bucket of emotions with the patriot and citizen in me?
I bring one bias to new museum buildings. Having done a renovation of a small but historic museum and an addition to it, I’m disposed to admire those who’ve stewarded a new concept and new building from start to finish, especially when both concept and building are big ones. A more fraught project is inconceivable. Expectations were high, various, and, at points, irreconcilable.
I spoke with Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director, while I was there. She is a strong, warm, savvy person who strikes me as deeply responsible and deeply respectful. She stewarded the museum from the beginning, along with, as she insisted, “a cast of thousands.” Given that she worked with so many of the families, I think her capacity to listen, to decide, and to reconcile must be extraordinary.
“This place is three things,” she told me as we stood at Ground Zero, hundreds of feet below the memorial plaza, where the North Tower stood and where Manhattan meets rock. “On September 11, this place was a cataclysm, and then for years it was buzzing with activity as the museum came to be, and now it’s a new beginning.”
Every museum director has to be positive, upbeat, an optimist, and a glass-half-full person. Greenwald was a leader in making the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She sees catastrophes of epic proportions and finds in them what’s sad and tragic, to be sure. She also sees endurance, courage, dignity, and defiance. She sees humanity at its worst but also at its best. She sees new beginnings as inevitable, essential, at times easy and sometimes painful. It’s the most human thing we do.
After we chatted and she left, I walked over to a case displaying part of a uniform worn by a member of SEAL Team Six, the naval special ops who found and took out bin Laden. I looked at pieces of debris from bin Laden’s compound. Greenwald’s a better person than I. My heart was pounding. I yearned to see bin Laden’s scalp.
The museum is under the 9/11 memorial. Its two caverns occupy the footprints of each tower. Sheets of water fall from the sides of each and then fall from the sides of another, seemingly bottomless, pit. Falling water, falling buildings. It’s stark and effective. I entered through a tilted, striated glass box, the striations meant to evoke the Twin Towers’ exterior and the tilt a shipwreck or a bombed-out building.
There’s a long escalator and then a zigzagging ramp. Along the way there’s a space describing how complex and how big the World Trade Center was, with 200 elevators, thousands of restrooms, each tower with 110 floors, the two together, on a business day, a small city of 50,000, and, when its construction was finished, costing a billion dollars. There’s the dedication pedestal from 1970, “in commemoration of the skill and industry of thousands of workers,” its steel still glistening but its surface pummeled.
Down we go. We hit the spot where the bomb exploded in 1993, in the first World Trade Center attack. Down more. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Orpheus seeking Eurydice, Hades’s kidnapping of Persephone, Jesus’s Harrowing of Hell, and Dante’s trip to the Inferno are each descents, into the afterlife, into memory, into darkness.
Part of the museum’s foundation, and a striking feature of what is truly Ground Zero, is one of the slurry walls built underneath the towers to block river water and soft, moist earth from seeping into the foundation. Its surface is rough, reinforced concrete. Rows of casings jut out of the wall. They were used to anchor the slurry wall so it wouldn’t collapse inward.
To me, the look suggests two things. It evokes the walls of ruins like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the only feature of the Second Temple to survive, or the Aurelian Walls in Rome. Turning to the more recent last, I thought about the earliest Dutch settlers in New York, who lived in the Twin Towers’ neighborhood. Keeping water out was a basic need for survival. They used trick after technological trick to do it, much as the builders of the Twin Towers pushed engineering to the limit. That’s part of what makes New York, New York.
Two 70-foot-tall steel trident-shaped columns, each weighing 50 tons, soar from the floor. They’re two survivors from a Twin Tower facade. We’re in the belly of a ruin. The museum’s a museum but it’s also an artifact. We’re in a grave, too. The North Tower pancaked and crashed into this pit. Unidentified remains are kept here. It’s where hundreds of people were smashed to smithereens and came to rest. It’s a cathedral-like space, too, vast and tall, with muted light. The final 36-foot-tall steel column to come from the wreckage is there, too, rising from the floor and much painted with graffiti.
It’s an eerie space, too. The battered, giant motor of the express elevator that took you to the Windows on the World restaurant is there. A huge steel beam’s there, bent by blunt trauma into what looks like a Richard Serra sculpture. Part of the TV and transmission antenna from one of the towers is there. Seen from the distance, it looked so sleek. Of course, it was enormous, and its ruins a pocked, sliced, twisted rectangle.
The big challenge is how to convey the horror of September 11 without making it unbearable. And, of course, the September 11 attack is the most documented event in the history of the world. The museum has 110,000 square feet, but artifacts and video and audio documentation is endless. Selecting what to exhibit must have been a profile in courage, stamina, focus, and discipline.
After the central atrium, which is a tone-setting and transition space, I went into a space showing, floor to ceiling, photographs of each of the 2,977 people who died. I’d been conditioned, having read, I think, almost all of the daily profiles of the dead that ran in the New York Times for months after the disaster.
I wasn’t overwhelmed or shattered but — once a curator, always a curator — I understood the mammoth job involved in getting the photographs. I’m sure there were some relatives who supplied photographs that were unsuitable. I’m sure some families quarreled over what to send. For some of the dead, there weren’t any. The museum curators, I’m also sure, wanted some notion of uniformity. They made the choice to show wall-mounted, printed photographs rather than pictures on a screen. The images look more real. They’re what we’d frame and place on a piano or in a hallway with pictures of other loved ones. They look like photos someone would cherish.
The 9/11 dead are mostly young. Every day I read the obituaries for southwestern Vermont, where I live now, and in the New Haven Register, since that’s where I grew up, and in the Times and the Telegraph. There, the dead are mostly old. On September 11, the dead were people in the middle of their careers, road warriors traveling on business, recent college graduates in their first jobs. It’s the saddest sight. Interactive tables are there. Visitors can find, by name or residence, the dead. Each has a profile developed by immediate family and the curators. The museum isn’t telling their story. Their loved ones are.
The museum tells people what happened. Of course, that raises questions in everyone with a brain in his head and a beating heart. We get a definitive version, and I can’t dispute it. It’s thorough and a crisply and clearly told story. It’s reportage history, which is what it should be, but it’s developing history, and that’s not settled. Why did it happen? How did we Americans respond? How did 9/11 change who we are?
All of this is in the cavernous atrium, the cathedral or grotto space. It sets the tone. It conveys the enormity of the disaster. It’s quiet. The objects are big, gnarled, and otherworldly. Then I entered what’s called the historical exhibition.
I’m a critic, and normally I look at how a story’s told through art. There’s no art at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, not art as most of us understand it. The art here is in the narrative and, of course, the design. It’s a story I know well since I was glued to TV and newspaper reporting for a week and then fastened on the fallout for weeks more. New Yorkers know the story because they lived it. Still, the story the museum tells us is both heartbreaking and hair-raising. It’s very effectively done.
I’m used to arranging 50 or a hundred paintings for a show, picking wall colors, writing the labels, and deciding where to put benches. The curators here had choices to make for every inch of space. There are many, many hundreds of objects on display, and that includes sound-bites and video. Some are incendiary, many open the floodgates of family emotion.
I hate history museums that are graphics-heavy. It’s the tyranny of the designer at work and shows an obsession with words and still photography. The look’s one of big jars filled with formaldehyde and puckered, wan specimens. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum eschews all of this. This museum uses TV. Clips from the Today show and other morning news programs tell us how reporting on the attacks evolved from a news flash that a Cessna had hit one of the towers (something that had happened years before), to a firmer, bigger story of a full-fledged disaster. A time line intersects screens, cases with artifacts, quotes, and photos, at points with audio. Spacing alternates between tight and more generous where we instinctively want either to contemplate or to breathe.
It’s a documentary of genius. It’s not just descriptive. It’s not just storytelling. We are there.
I remember many of the elements displayed as they happened in 2001. There’s a quote from a flight attendant on one of the planes. At 8:32 she said, “I see water . . . I see buildings . . . we’re flying very, very low.” Film shows the first plane hitting at 8:46. We hear a recording from a dispatcher at 8:55. “Send every ambulance you have.”
Minutes later, we hear a recording of a message Sean Rooney left for his wife, Beverly, on their home answering machine. He was working in the South Tower, on the 105th floor. “It’s secure here,” he says. “Talk to you later.” At 9:02, a voice from a patrol car says, “Heads up, man, looks like another one’s coming.” Rooney was trapped. He made several calls in the next hour, eventually talking to his wife until she heard a thundering crash and the call go dead, but we don’t hear the recordings. I read the transcript a few years ago. It’s heartbreaking. Rooney was one brave soul.
The curators, led by Greenwald, made a choice. There are no end-of-life recordings in the museum, and not only because they’d make people cry. These recordings are seen as remains. You can look away from a photograph, but we’re programmed to listen to a voice. We’ll interrupt someone in an argument. We won’t interrupt someone’s last words. And how can a curator edit these last words?
At 9:21, we read a clip from the cockpit recording for Flight 93, the plane where the passengers fought the hijackers. The hijackers have just busted the door to the cockpit. “Get outta here, get outta here, get outta here,” the pilot shouts. At 9:42, the head of the FAA’s flight-control system acts. “Order everyone to land, regardless of destination.” At 9:53, the CIA intercepts a phone call made from Afghanistan. “I’ve heard the good news.” It’s from an al-Qaeda big shot. Big-screen footage of the South Tower’s collapse looks apocalyptic.
The historical exhibition then surprised me. It does a penetrating, almost academic flashback to the origins of 9/11. A cool, compelling story follows, presented methodically as a prosecutor in a murder trial would build his case.
I don’t know what the museum could have done better to capture the horrors of the Pentagon attack and the Flight 93 crash. Both get lots of space, and both are interpreted and visualized with the same high production values and incisiveness of the presentation of the Twin Towers disasters.
The Pentagon attack seems to have been handled on the ground with military precision. It didn’t have the excruciatingly long lag between crash and collapse, the firemen rushing in, the people who jumped. For Flight 93, there are recordings we’ve all heard, but it’s become the stuff of movies and still difficult to grasp. Twenty years later, people in Shanksville are angry, like everyone else in America. The tourists, or, as they call them, “the gawkers,” come and go and do it intrusively. There’s immense tragedy in both places, but all I can say is that September 11 remains a New York story, which can account for the difficulty of telling it outside that setting.
“How did we get there?” and “where are we now?” are my big questions. I look at the first question in a technical, forensic way. Hijackers about whom spies and G-men knew a lot got through lackadaisical security with box cutters and knives. A big, well-done wing of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum examines the origin story.
There’s a section on al-Qaeda and bin Laden that’s fact-driven and unapologetic. All roads lead to the hard-to-refute finding that our masters were asleep at the switch. The prosecutor in the 1993 bombing trial said Americans weren’t prepared and existed in a state of false invincibility. “This can happen here, to me, in the United States,” he said in his opening statement to the jury.
Step by step we get to September 11, first via big-picture events. There’s a section on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the rise of al-Qaeda, and the 1991 Gulf War, in which American troops went into Saudi Arabia on their way to Kuwait and really never left. Bin Laden hated that. And bin Laden wasn’t just one of many kooks in a tent in a desert fuming about Jews and Crusaders. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
Is Bill Clinton left off the hook? Yes. Plans to take bin Laden out were scuttled. A panel on Clinton is tucked in the corner, too low to read. I creaked as I got on the floor to look at it. Clinton didn’t make it a priority, and don’t blame the distraction of Monica. His FBI, CIA, and DOD didn’t make it a priority.
The day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and then minute-by-minute time line returns when the exhibition turns to the hijackers. It’s also well done. Here and there, I thought, “there’s the place where we should have gotten them.” Airport security wasn’t good. In Massachusetts, Logan Airport was famous as the dumping ground for hacks. Virginia Buckingham, the head of Massport (the state’s port authority), was chief of staff to Governor Bill Weld and Governor Paul Cellucci before Governor Jane Swift dumped her. There’s what’s called the “last-night letter,” a long suicide note written by one of the hijackers in neat Arabic script. “We strike like heroes who are determined not to return to this world.”
Visitors were rapt in this section and in the one on the rise of al-Qaeda and bin Laden. I’m glad to see this. These sections are really about holding leadership to account, the need for an attentive, informed, demanding citizenry, and what happens when our leaders fail. There’s a small photograph from 2002 of a woman holding a sign reading “We Want Answers.” I would have made it ten feet tall.
The last gallery treats the recovery and aftermath phases. It’s got far too many things in it. Like everything else about 9/11, then and after 20 years, it’s a jumble. I knew most of the facts recited in the exhibition because I’m a news junkie, and September 11 was, well, of the utmost importance. For diligent people who don’t know most of the facts and especially for such people under age 35, every space demands stamina, whether from curiosity or reverence. If there’s ever an overhaul, this final section needs trimming. There’s too much to absorb.
Many things in this section, or I should say everything, is a teachable moment. I’d pick four things.
Kevin Prior, 28, was a fireman killed on September 11. His smashed but intact helmet is in a case. The helmet tells us about the bravery and sacrifice of the firefighters. Every fire station in the city was there. Many lost people. Each fire station in New York, and we see them on the street, in neighborhoods, has a plaque and photographs.
Rudy Giuliani, shown in many photographs in this part of the exhibit, has become a hate figure today. The New York whinerati, which overlaps with the chatterati, view him as a figure of contempt and comedy. But Giuliani’s leadership on September 11 and afterward shouldn’t be forgotten or slighted. And, before he became mayor and saved the city, Giuliani was the force, sometimes blunt, sometimes a pincer, who crushed the Mafia. Factoring in all of this, to me, excuses a multitude of subsequent sins. If the prim, smug bellyacher and faultfinder class can forgive Bill Clinton, it can do the same for Rudy Giuliani.
I’m sure the curators debated over where to put what’s called “the composite.” It’s a big chunk, about four feet high and six feet wide, of compressed who-knows-what. It’s a pancaked remnant of one of the towers. We don’t know whether human remains are in it. It’s gruesome and a final reminder of the physical cataclysm of 9/11.
And last, there’s a torn Bible fused to a chunk of metal, both battered. It’s open to Matthew 5:39. “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite them on the right cheek, turn to him the other.” This passage doesn’t mean that Christians should passively accept hate and injury. Defending ourselves is fine and necessary. What isn’t fine and necessary is vengeance. “We leave room for God’s wrath,” Romans tells us. Punishment is the realm of God.
What about wanting to see bin Laden’s scalp? I’m sated knowing the Navy SEALs got it, wherever it is.
The biggest public complaints after the 9/11 Memorial & Museum opened surrounded the gift shop and the $24 admission fee, now $26, or $46 for admission and a tour. Many generous donors, chief among them Michael Bloomberg, Giuliani’s successor as mayor, made the museum possible. It gets no government money, and got none for construction. In my humble opinion, the federal government should have paid for the museum and should guarantee free admission. Washington paid billions in restitution to the families and appropriated $20 billion in aid to New York City days after the disaster. It’s picking up most of the tab for a new women’s history museum and Hispanic culture and history museum on the National Mall. Both will be Smithsonian museums and free. Both are a big waste of money. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is an exceptionally good, wise, and needed expenditure. And to people who gripe about the gift shop, I say “get over it.” The merchandise is NYPD and NYFD swag, books, toy fire engines, T-shirts, coffee mugs with images of the Twin Towers, and other very focused and topical items. I bought a NYPD Christmas ornament.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is history, therapy, a treatise on bravery, and a catharsis. It’s so well done. I think it’s essential viewing for families, for tourists, for New Yorkers, for young adults, for everyone invested in America’s future.
PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks