Getting to 9/11

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.

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.”

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.

This truck was from FDNY Engine Company 21, quartered in midtown Manhattan on East 40th Street. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Recovered from the World Trade Center site after September 11, 2001. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Presented with permission of the New York City Fire Department.

The final piece of steel to be removed from the site, now called the Last Column, was covered in remembrances. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The display window of Chelsea Jeans was meticulously preserved in its ash-covered state. Photo: Christopher Griffith

A piece of American Airlines Flight 11. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Gift of the Port Authority Police Department Traveling Memorial.

A fragment of American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Courtesy of the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum.

The slurry wall around the foundation of the original Trade Center, built in the late 1960s to hold back the soft soil and the waters of the Hudson. Photo: Christopher Griffith

This ambulance, driven by EMS Battalion 17 emergency medical technicians Benjamin Badillo and Edward Martinez, was parked near Vesey and West Streets. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Recovered from the World Trade Center site after September 11, 2001. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Presented with permission of the New York City Fire Department.

Chalk call board from New York City Fire Department Ladder 13. Five of the firefighters were killed that day. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The collapse of the towers exerted unimaginable force. This dense aggregation of rubble, three feet high, is the compressed remains of five full floors. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Hijacker Mohand al-Shehri’s boarding pass for Flight 175, retrieved from the trash at Boston Logan International Airport. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Inside the museum, a view upward to the tower footprints. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Another view of the slurry wall. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The FDNY’s Ladder Company 3, headquartered on East 13th Street, parked this truck on West Street that day. Twelve of its members were killed in the collapse of the North Tower. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Another view of Ladder Company 3’s truck. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The cross-shaped steel fragment that stood over the site. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army, International Affairs, lost 75 people in the attacks. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Courtesy of the United States Army Historical Collection, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

When the North Tower collapsed, FDNY lieutenant Mickey Kross was trapped at the third floor of stairwell B. When he got out a few hours later, disoriented, Kross picked up a playing card lying in the debris, the only thing that looked recognizable and undamaged, and carried it thereafter for luck. He later added the Shakespeare quote. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The TV mast from the roof of the North Tower. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Recovered from the World Trade Center site after September 11, 2001. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Remnant of a box column. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Almost no office furnishings from the Twin Towers survived. The other damaged Trade Center buildings sheltered a number of ordinary objects, like this file drawer from building 4. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Recovered from the World Trade Center site after September 11, 2001. Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The seal of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, pulled from the wreckage of 7 World Trade Center. The mayor’s command center was on the 23rd floor. Photo: Christopher Griffith. Used with permission of the City of New York and the New York City Office of Emergency Management, Courtesy of Richard Sheirer.

A protester’s sign. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Badges of trade workers, called in for the recovery effort. Photo: Christopher Griffith

The Tribute Walk along the South Tower footprint. Photo: Christopher Griffith

Getting to 9/11