Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum

Last Thursday, at the tail end of a family vacation that took me to New Jersey, I visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum for the first time since its opening last spring.

I visited alone, without my former colleagues, friends, or family, although I did stop first at the new offices of the Museum staff in the former One World Financial Center, now 200 Liberty Street. I had been careful not to read too many reviews before my visit. Adam Gopnik's contextual piece in the New Yorker was an exception. 

My immediate emotional response was one of relief. I found myself relieved that the museum has been built, that a place with such heavy potential energy has been realized. No longer is there a tremendous build-up of pressure and possibility. There is a museum. It is full of things, and sounds, and images, and people. The people are participant observers. They have come to learn and they appear respectful, introspective, intrepid. I observed numerous positive encounters between visitors and education staff. The space to cover is vast, dense in places. Where there is sufficient space for reflection, the impact is at its greatest. Where there is too much space, the pacing feels off, uncertain. The entry ramp that leads from the lobby level to bedrock unfolds with an odd pace, almost a punctuated equilibrium.  It is not unlike memory, but not quite like it either. The overlooks (areas where the wall dips to the tower volumes and vistas below), with the exception of the glass wall over Foundation Hall, are too high for clear viewing by a person of my proportions (short), let alone a person in a wheel chair.

Spencer Finch's art installation, photo by Adina Langer
However, the space from the survivors’ staircase through the memorial exhibition unfolds beautifully. Spencer Finch's art installation on the east wall, surrounding the famous Virgil quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is a slow reveal of emotional intensity. The piece is the only artwork commissioned for the new museum. At first I did not understand what I was looking at – blue tiles? Post-it notes? And then I read the description of the piece, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky That September Morning.” 2983 water-color paper squares. Each a different, unique shade of blue. The impact was complete, like a flood of water over a wall. The paper an echo of the fallen paper on 9/11 and the missing posters that appeared everywhere afterward. The color, subtly variegated. One for each human life extinguished. The act of repetition, an impossible task of remembering an impression – perception different for every individual. I didn’t know what I was  viewing at first, but now I am glad for having viewed it.  I cannot think of a better cladding for a wall separating the museum from the repository of human remains.

The memorial exhibition, the part of the museum for which I was responsible for four of the 6 years I worked at the Memorial, was like slipping inside a model I knew like the back of my hand. The faces are bathed in a warm glow, and we were successful in obtaining so many images. I saw hardly any oak leaves, the symbol used when a photo could not be obtained, and most of the images were clear, colored, and lovely. It was not easy to view the names on the top rows, but they could be read easily in the interactive tables which worked beautifully, with only a few issues with the speed of loading content. The audio quality was clear and warm in tone, not tinny or harsh, even for the remembrances which originated with “Call toRemember.” My only complaint, something I had anticipated, is that the artifact cases felt unnecessarily small and cramped given the space that could have been used. This was especially true of the bonnet cases.

In Memoriam was full of reverent visitors but not overcrowded. The inner chamber was peaceful and contemplative with only a small but appropriate sense of the need to tread gingerly on the bedrock below the glass floor. Overall, the exhibit felt cozy, not repressive or funereal or overwrought. I am proud of the work we did on this exhibit. Speaking with a friend about my work on the exhibit and her experiences viewing it, I told her that I had felt like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. She said that the exhibit felt like a new commemorative paradigm.  How nice it would be if we could all have a place to go to remember our relatives like that. Perhaps we should extend this service to commemorate loved ones everywhere, regardless of the circumstances under which they died…

Porter Gaud School banner, photo by Adina Langer
Leaving the memorial exhibition, I enjoyed viewing the quilts and banners in the tribute art hallway.  I also loved the South Tower archeological gallery.  The site’s sense of place was underscored through the design of that exhibit, and I hope to return to give more attention to the archeological aspects of the site in the future.  During this visit, I opted to give only cursory attention to this exhibit in favor of advancing to the historical exhibition.

South Tower archeological exhibition, photo by Adina Langer
Compared to In Memoriam, the historical exhibition was overwhelming, with the exception of occasional moments that mimicked the feeling of safety and clarity in the memorial exhibition, namely the audio/video alcoves, especially those telling the stories of people inside the towers. The architecture of the jumpers’ alcove (space dedicated to the story of those who fell from the towers) was uncomfortably isolating and voyeuristic in the way it forced you to stand alone and look up. Perhaps this was intentional and the feeling produced was appropriate.

Maybe there were just too many people in attendance at the historical exhibit, but it was difficult to find a clear path amid the chaos, especially in Part I. The outer walls were mobbed, and it was tough to focus on any one of the many images and tiny artifact spaces along the walls.  I had no need to view the timeline myself, but visitors were clearly interested in its contents. (I did like the way the times appeared along the wall as you walked by them though). I longed for escape and was happy only when a space opened up along a wall for me to view an artifact of significance. It was difficult to find these stories though, on walls crowded with photographs and a very detailed timeline. That’s another reason why I appreciated the intimacy of the alcoves. On the main path, I felt both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. I was too exhausted to appreciate the story of Al Qaeda in Part II, although I really liked the gallery on the significance of the WTC. I appreciated the openness and choice offered in Part III, The World After 9/11.

Perhaps this was all content-appropriate. 9/11 was chaotic and myopic, painful and confusing. Eventually we understood what was happening and what had happened, but not fully as the events were unfolding. In Part III we are free to focus on the myriad tasks of recovery and to ask questions about the meaning and consequences of these events. I appreciate how these questions were posed in the galleries.

One moment worth mentioning that I appreciated at the end of Part I was the use of the audio artifact of the FDNY “Man Down” beepers. It was eerie and set the space apart from the present time.

I did not like how the tribute art was crammed together at the end of the exhibit. In trying to get so much in, the stories were muddied or lost. I think I would have preferred one or two pieces on display on a rotating basis.

World Trade Center tridents, photo by Adina Langer
One last impression: The interactive digital overlay for the Last Column worked beautifully and was very attractive and accessible for the visiting youth.  I observed a young girl combing through symbols and exploring deeply.

Tridents marked "save" by recovery workers, photo by Adina Langer
On my way out of the museum, I paused to look again at the towering tridents saved from the rubble of the World Trade Center. These steel structures stand as a microcosm of the 9/11 Memorial Museum experience, emblems of wreckage and the will to memorialize, marked by the process necessary to realize this dream of commemoration.

Circling back to my first impressions, the security structure at the beginning of the museum entry felt like an installation in and of itself, although I would have appreciated some signage highlighting this further—something about how airport security changed drastically after 9/11.  Perhaps it was there, but I didn’t notice it.

Looking up at the new One World Trade Center, disappearing into the clouds. Photo by Adina Langer
So much of this museum is about signs and symbols. Things are not only what they appear to be or function as on the surface. They are imbued with meaning, often beyond the control of those who created or installed them. Such will be the fate of the Memorial Museum, and such a fate should be embraced. Walking back to the PATH train after my visit, I paused to look upward at the new One World Trade Center, its peak disappearing into the clouds. Below it, the memorial plaza is both more than and not more than a gathering place in the shadow of this new structure. All the people of the world pass through this space, and every time they pass, new memories go with them. This is a place where memories are born and reborn. This is a museum where ideas live.  
Standing by the newly constructed memorial pools, 2011. Photo courtesy Adina Langer