At times, the sensitivity becomes glaring. A wall label near the entrance to one alcove states the stunningly obvious: “Please be advised that the program contains disturbing content.” That description gets ratcheted up to “very disturbing” for the corner reserved for the topic of those who, faced with the choice between burning and jumping, chose the open air. I couldn’t face that section on my first visit, but on the second I steeled myself and went in, to find familiar horrors: no videos or identifiable faces, only stills of distant plunging specks.
The museum averts its gaze in more insidious ways, too. The story that opened on a bright Tuesday morning at the start of the school year kept growing more tendrils. During Alice Greenwald’s first year on the job, construction began on One World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, the war in Afghanistan raged, and drone strikes became an almost daily routine. The meaning of 9/11 continues to change, which means that the museum must be simultaneously definitive and open-ended. “We’re a museum that doesn’t presume to wrap it up nice and neat,” Greenwald says.
In fact, it presumes too little. The exhibits hint at the complexity of the aftermath without tackling the thorniest topics. There are glancing references to conspiracy theorists and tensions between security and civil liberties. A gimmicky digital synopsis projected on a wall keeps recomposing itself, creating a new sequence of headlines every few minutes, but it all goes by too quickly to digest. Clips from on-camera interviews with dignitaries are interspersed with comments that visitors can contribute in a recording booth. But we learn little or nothing about torture, or rendition, or Abu Ghraib, or Tora Bora, or drone raids on Pakistan, or the Bush administration’s spurious linkage of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein to justify the war in Iraq. We are spared Rudy Giuliani’s constant campaign invocations of his role in 9/11.
As I thread my way through the skein of memories and outrage, it occurs to me that mine is the reaction of someone who was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I’m relieved that the curators have handled the inherent tensions as deftly as they have, and I am awed all over again by the terrible magnitude of the events. I am discomfited and unhappy—and that is the museum’s strength. It’s a tonic for the jaded and an antidote to denial. To visit is to volunteer for certain but tolerable pain. I wonder, though, what impact the museum will make on my 16-year-old son, who spent that morning happily playing dress-up on his first day of preschool, or what it will mean to his grandchildren. Hennes has thought about that question, though he offers no pat answer. “People will enter this place with all different narratives. There isn’t one story of 9/11. There are thousands. The museum has to be a place where those stories can be told, and where they can be made coherent.” But history is not, or not only, a subjective affair, and the museum’s lasting power lies in the unadorned presentation of evidence. In one alcove, recorded voices from inside the towers segue one into the other, while illuminated pinpoints on a simple diagram indicate the speaker’s position. We hear Orio Palmer, a Fire Department battalion chief who has climbed to the 78th floor of the South Tower, shout breathlessly into the radio to report “numerous 10-45s Code Ones”—Fire Department lingo for the dead. The realization that he will be next comes in a burst of weird, appalling immediacy. We are witnessing the instant of doom from the comfortable distance of time, and it’s still not easy to bear.