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Getting to 9/11

How a museum’s creators memorialized our collective agony.

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Photographs by Christopher Griffith


In late May 2002, the place they still called ground zero had become an immense and pristine hole. Truckload after surreal truckload of mangled steel and ash and gruesome finds had been carted away, leaving a flat expanse of concrete and rock. One final column from the Twin Towers remained standing, a 36-foot totem of rusting steel emblazoned with cryptic notes, duct-taped snapshots, and a running tally of dead bodies. But even with the cleanup declared done, workers kept raking the floor with ordinary garden tools, hunting for some infinitesimal shard of human bone. Today, the floor, the column, and one of those rakes are reunited in the National September 11 Memorial Museum, a huge and spectacularly mournful institution in the bowels of the new World Trade Center.

For years, I have stayed away from reminders of 9/11 and the weeks that followed. The most exhaustively recorded cataclysm in history yielded fictionalized movies, documentaries, YouTube clips, eyewitness accounts, TV news reports, police-radio tapes, and endless documentation. I avoided it all. Instead, I remained focused on the drama of reconstruction, visiting the site many times to watch swarms of hard-hatted welders cauterizing the urban wound. I did, however, have an early preview of what a museum might be like a decade ago, when I visited Hangar 17 at JFK. There, crushed emergency vehicles, twisted girders, sections of the broadcasting antenna, half a dozen bikes still chained to a rack, and a lump of fused metal, concrete, paper, and glass were all laid out in an improvised architectural morgue. The last column was stretched out there, too, housed in its own dehumidified area. The hangar tour was draining, and, years later, the prospect of revisiting that archive of mass murder in its place of origin makes me fibrillate with dread.

Justin Davidson's video tour of the museum.


The museum is buried in a crypt beneath the crime scene, but I enter through the silvery origami-like pavilion designed by Snøhetta, whose architects have anticipated some of its visitors’ more primal anxieties. Large windows look onto the memorial plaza, where the atmosphere is a mixture of reverence and casual cheer. Outside, kids take selfies with the names carved in bronze and the big shiny towers beyond. Inside, all is bright light and blond wood and soothing necessities like the coat check and bathrooms. A wide staircase descends into darkness; alongside it, a pair of tremendous steel arms reaches up into the light. This is the first trace we see of the ruined behemoths, two of the linked tridents that formed the towers’ gothic arches. Weathered but unbent, they thrust vertically past their new home’s weave of angled struts, mute reminders of the original buildings’ enormity. They also stand as signposts to the Stygian galleries below.

It’s not just craving for forgetfulness that slows my step, but skepticism, too. I wonder where the museum experience will fall on the spectrum from anodyne to brutal—whether disaster will morph into prurient multimedia entertainment or force visitors into a morbidly earnest trudge. Virtually every decision in this enterprise has been controversial: the underground location, the inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”), the ticket price ($24), the gift-shop souvenirs, the placement of unidentified human remains in an inaccessible chamber just off the museum’s main hall, the inclusion of terrorists’ photographs, the short film about the rise of Al Qaeda, and more. Given this swarm of sensitivities, will the museum fall back on pieties and pabulum? The more I think about the task of perpetuating the recollection of that day, the more doubts flock: How can a museum chronicle unsettled history, or interpret an event we don’t fully understand? How can an exhibit be meaningful to those who were showered in ash that day and also to children who have yet to be born? I think of that field of ravaged metal at JFK: How can those relics be installed in a museum without converting them into aesthetic objects, beautifully lit but stripped of violence and specificity?

Burdened by these musings, I walk down the long staircase into the minimalist Hades designed by Davis Brody Bond. I am greeted by a murmuring choir of recorded reminiscences from all over the world, reminding me that 9/11 was a global event. The dark floors and austere sarcophagal aura make me wistful for the light above, but the architects have taken care to lead visitors gently into the depths. Underground spaces can be disorienting, but this one comes into partial focus at the first overlook. Shock arrives in ripples of recognition. A ramp winds down toward the foundations, where the cut-off columns that held up the Twin Towers sit embedded in Manhattan schist. A pair of building-size boxes, containing the memorial’s waterfalls and coated with glistening aluminum foam, hang in the immense cavern like geometric stalactites. I have arrived at bedrock level, the floor of the concrete bathtub, separated from the Hudson River by a 70-foot-high section of “slurry wall” so brawny and raw that it could almost be a segment of the Hoover Dam. It’s here that the collapsing skyscrapers came to rest, here that the worker with the rake knelt and scraped. That great trench has become a vast vault, containing some of the nation’s most eloquent ruins. The tale that this museum has to tell is partly about dimensions—the inconceivable scale of murder, the size of the weapons, the targets’ bulk, the worldwide aftershocks. Doing it justice requires a lot of space. The biggest artifacts are back, and as I stare at all that crooked metal, thick girders bent by the force of a speeding plane, I find myself trying in vain to conjure up the extremes of violence that formed it. The last column is standing again, dwarfed just as it was when the hall was an open pit, only now a touchscreen allows visitors to zoom in to the scrawls and taped mementos and read a digital text label for each one. After all, a museum’s job is not just to preserve but also to explain.


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