9/11 museum: 'Unimaginable loss,' courage, and compassion at ground zero (+video)

President Obama and victims' families gather Thursday to launch a week-long 'dedication period' for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The museum opens to the public May 21.

By , Staff Writer

The young, regimented lines of swamp white oaks in the Memorial Plaza at ground zero are still surrounded by the buzz of skyscraper construction, but nearly 13 years after the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the completed National September 11 Memorial & Museum will finally open its doors.

In a ceremony Thursday, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, will join the victims' families and the nation's top officials to dedicate the contentious and long-delayed 9/11 museum. It stands amid the urban oaks, an angular structure of glass and stainless steel, jutting between the two waterfalls and reflecting pools that trace where the Twin Towers once stood. 

Spaces devoted to reflection can sometimes come off as trite, but for many of those who have already toured the new museum, the experience has evoked the kind of silent, stunned moments that have long driven human beings to consecrate a space, preserve its relics, and mark the passing of time.

Recommended: Looking back: The Monitor's coverage of 9/11

“One hundred years from now, nobody alive will have witnessed 9/11,” says Steven Davis, one of the architects of the museum, on a video on the Memorial’s website. “But this is a museum that is going to live for many, many, many generations.”

And, like any museum, it will house thousands of artifacts from that day, from a 70-foot steel trident from the base of the North Tower’s east side, to a half-charred ID from an office worker lost in its southern twin. Most of these are displayed seven stories beneath the Plaza, down to the very bedrock reaches of Manhattan, which once anchored the foundational girders of two 110-story towers.

But the museum will also house 7,930 slivers of human remains that have yet to be identified. Of those who perished, there are still 1,115 victims who have not been identified – or 41 percent of the 2,753 people reported missing in New York that day. For the past week, a number of victims' families protested, saying it was disrespectful and undignified for these remains to rest in a place where visitors must pay a $24 admission fee.

After Thursday’s ceremony, there will be a week-long “dedication period” for all 9/11 families, including survivors, rescue and recovery workers, and lower Manhattan residents and business owners – who will never have to pay a fee. The museum will remain open 24/7 during this time, before opening to the public on May 21.

For a decade, the new public space has faced a tsunami of opinions, opposition, budgetary battles, lawsuits, and other delays – including flooding from superstorm Sandy. But in the end, after thousands of consultations with victims’ families, designers, historians, and even psychologists, its planners forged from the ruins an experience that re-creates the both historic scope and enduring gravitas of that day.

“A significant contributor to the way the museum evolved was the sense of absence or void, the large hole that emerged after 9/11,” says Carl Krebs, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, the New York-based architectural firm that directed the museum’s construction, in a video produced by The New York Times. “We’re on an authentic site, and we’re doing a museum that describes the events of 9/11 and the aftermath literally on the very ground that the event happened.”

After a post-9/11 ritual of modern security, visitors enter a sun-swept pavilion and descend down toward the exhibits below. Above them is an enormous glass atrium, with a jutting series of panes, giving a sweeping view of 1 World Trade – the former “Freedom Tower” – looming high overhead. Inside the glass enclosure is the North Tower’s rusty steel trident that once formed the building’s Gothic base and now constitutes “the vertical spine of the museum,” according to planners.

The descent into the darker reaches of bedrock first approaches a narrow corridor of words: transcripts of oral histories, along with the voices themselves, form an overlapping cacophony of sentences that both create a layered visual map of the world, as well as a chorus of audible voices: "On Sept. 11, 2001, I began my day in typical fashion …", "Then we saw the second plane crash ...", "I was so relieved my son got out ...".

And then a ramp leads to the first overlook into “Foundation Hall,” the museum’s 60-foot tall, 14,000 square-foot subterranean exhibit space, featuring the resilient slurry wall that held back the Hudson all throughout the disaster and long wreckage removal.

It also features the last 58-ton steel girder to be removed from the wreckage, which was covered with messages from rescue workers. The room contains the twisted “impact steel” from the 98th floor of the North Tower, bent by the nose of American Airlines Flight 11 into an artifact that looks like the Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace.

The final descent closes with a remnant of the Vesey Street stairs, where hundreds of people escaped before the towers fell. Visitors walk on either side of these concrete remnants, in a sense reenacting the escape route for so many that day.

“You’re in the basement of the World Trade Center – it is a place of witness,” says Alice Greenwald, the museum's director, on a website video. “Most museums house artifacts, and we are a museum that sits within an artifact.”

Other artifacts include the wreckage of a fire truck from Ladder Company 3, a 20-foot segment of the North Tower’s radio and television antenna, and a segment of the foundational girders, still embedded into the bedrock.

Beneath the South Tower’s footprint, however, the museum focuses on the stories of each of the victims of the attacks. Visitors engage interactive consoles to listen to remembrances of those lost – and can even record their own thoughts to be preserved in the museum’s permanent collection.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum cost a total of $700 million to build, and will cost about $60 million to run each year – $10 million of which will be devoted to security – making it the most expensive memorial in the nation by far.

“The museum tells heartbreaking stories of unimaginable loss, but also inspiring stories of courage and compassion,” said former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the memorial foundation's chairman, on Wednesday. “It tells how, in the aftermath of the attacks, our city, our nation, and people across the world came together.”

 
 

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