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Getting to 9/11

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In 2006, Alice Greenwald, who had been a director at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was appointed to run what was then an amorphous institution with a laundry list of topics and a backlog of acrimony but no overarching concept, no consensus, no design, and not much of a collection. So Greenwald launched a series of exploratory powwows. “We brought everybody into a room,” she says, “family members, survivors, first responders, landmark preservationists, architects, museum people—and we started with a set of very large questions about what a museum should be.” From those conversations, the team arrived at a few fundamentals: that the loftiest spaces should contrast with intimate chambers, that visitors should be free to create their own itinerary and bypass whatever content they chose, and that tissue boxes would be strategically placed.

The result is a bifurcated museum, split between the square footprints of the original towers and tucked beneath the twin memorial pools. Where the South Tower stood is the memorial exhibition, an outer room papered with the photographs of the 2,977 people killed on September 11, plus the six who died in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Table-mounted touchscreens bring up details of the victims’ lives, which can be projected on the walls of a separate room, an inner sanctum where the lost are remembered one at a time. In an audio recording, the Cantor Fitzgerald employee John Katsimatides’s sister Anthoula teases him posthumously about his John Travolta dance moves: “They used to call him Johnny Bodacious,” she recalls.

The historical exhibition designed by David Layman, its brittle and troubling content stowed in a climate-controlled zone behind glass doors, takes up the entire North Tower footprint, and it’s a tour de force of devastating authenticity. The core is a minute-by-minute timeline of the events as we all observed them, starting at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit and a confused Matt Lauer shortly thereafter interrupted Today. In the confined spaces of the exhibition, you confront the experience of a city blasted beyond recognition. Firefighters, their landmarks, equipment, and buddies all gone, mill helplessly around, then start searching through the great pile for tiny caves where someone might conceivably have survived. Almost subliminally, the design leads you from small spaces to large, toggling between intimacy and awe.

Chief curator Jan Ramirez has assembled a collection of ephemera, mundane objects, and digital traces that had become suddenly sanctified by circumstance. We see the wristwatch that Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93, was wearing when he said, “Let’s roll.” We hear Sean Rooney call his wife, Beverly Eckert, just after the first plane hit to reassure her that the problem was in the North Tower and that he was fine. We read a letter from Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the Victim Compensation Fund, informing Steven Morello that his father’s life was worth exactly $62,135.41. We imagine the sensation of strapping on the Phantom of the Opera–like burn mask that Harry Waizer, who’d worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and was badly scarred by fire, wore 16 hours a day for a year after the attacks. We stare at a sealed store window, where jeans and sweatshirts coated in toxic ash form a wrenching diorama. These artifacts, too, reflect the scale of September 11—not just the smashed structures and great torn beams.

After the darkness of that day, a brief intermission: a small section devoted to the World Trade Center in pop culture. But I can only linger so long over posters of King Kong and Working Girl before plunging back into tougher stuff. The timeline begins again, another narravie rewinds back to sunrise, and this time it includes not only what we saw but also what we knew only later. By 7:36 a.m., under the eye of security cameras, terrorists check in at Dulles. On another screen nearby, at exactly the same moment, office workers click through the subway turnstiles into the World Trade Center concourse.

It was clear from the beginning of the design process that the museum would have to show more than just things. The physical destruction and emotional wounds were documented electronically, and they would have to be presented that way, too. The task of weaving photos, audio, video, and radar into the narrative fell to Thinc, the exhibition design firm headed by Tom Hennes, and Local Projects, a multimedia design company founded by Jake Barton. This was the aspect I worried about most—that glossy screens and hyperactive graphics would distract from the experience they were supposed to enhance, or else not work at all. That danger isn’t past—it’s crucial that the machines are maintained with fanatical perfection—but the use of interactive technology is tastefully restrained. There are films, but no sonorous narration, no added sound effects, no Adagio for Strings—just, as they say, the facts. The graphic palette, like the architecture, is mostly black and white. Every one of the interactive displays must strike a balance between vividness and consoling distance, and when they don’t get it right, they err on the side of aloofness. “We don’t ever want to re-create that day,” says Tom Hennes of Thinc. “It’s not about screams and sirens. You’re at the site, but you never lose sense of the fact that you’re there today, not back then. The there and then of the day comes through testimony, not immersive experience, which would be sensationalizing and exploitative, and potentially traumatizing.”


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