The 9/11 Memorial Museum has been in planning and construction for longer than most probably anticipated. But really it’s been a relatively short interval. The history of the museum as memorial of atrocity is relatively short, and when a museum plans to be around for a long time, a little bit of historical perspective can only help. The questions of the memorial museum’s process and future — for our view of events is bound to evolve over time — are huge. Shortly after the 2001 tragedy I joined a committee at the Van Alen Institute to discuss memorial process. Edward Linenthal, who wrote on the Oklahoma City memorial museum, came to speak to us, mostly about the intensity and difficulty of negotiations among stakeholders.
We have all read about the controversies of the 9/11 museum’s founding, so I could easily imagine the obstacles facing the designers when I visited the museum last week. The model has been established by the modern Holocaust museum. The entry pavilion — the small part of the museum above grade — is not so successful. Clad in diagonally framed metal, it resembles a toppled building not unlike the fallen towers.
Immediately below is a recognizable modern museum lobby with information desk and gift shop.
It starts to work after this point, as you descend a long ramp and stairs and the space opens up into a vast cavern. It still feels like a modern art museum — and the artifacts eerily resembling modern sculpture reinforce this — but it starts to immerse us, gently, into what happened in this very spot, not very long ago. We see traces of the destroyed buildings’ foundations. While this could have seemed simply technical, recognizing the severed structure both anchors us psychically to the scene of the events and orients us. We recognize that the envelopes of the former towers (now inverted as fountains, voids in the plaza above) have been rendered as abstract, silvery surfaces, always present throughout the museum.
The massive exhibition space is conventionally divided into areas devoted to aspects of the attacks and the aftermath. Thankfully, these are not neat little galleries — there is always a sense that we are exploring an archeological site.
The space under the footprints of the towers are reserved for memorials to the dead. There are exhibits devoted to a history of the Trade Center, to the rise of Al Qaeda, Stephane Sednaoui’s photographs, but the section that really brings you back to the insanity of September 11 is in a far corner, closed off by glass, like going into a conservatory. Here we experience the sequence in order, from the sounds, the smoke, the breaking news stories, to artifacts and accounts. It is dense and hard-hitting.
The whole experience is fittingly epic — I was there about an hour and a half and could easily have spent another hour, difficult as that would be.
What is missing? The world feels so different, in many ways, than it did before that day. Who would have guessed that at least 40 times the number of deaths on September 11 would result from the subsequent wars? It is possible that I missed it, but I wanted to see an attempt to portray the international and American societal transformation caused almost entirely by that day.
How will the memory of those events will change over time? In twenty years, when my kids bring their kids to the museum, what will it mean then?