by Paul Deines
I toured the National September 11 Memorial Museum in mid-June. Since then, I have stutter-stepped through my reactions just about every day. Obviously, since over 300,000 visitors have already passed through the Lower Manhattan museum, there is a communal desire for it. Yet it is impossible to predict how each person will react to a topic as fraught as 9/11 , and my response was a mix of confusion and daze. So, I’m writing now because, removed from my initial emotional response, I think I can discuss how the museum succeeds and falls short, hopefully in a manner that helps readers decide if they want to visit themselves.
But first, disclosure time.
Firstly, I should mention I was not living in New York on September 11, 2001. I’m not going to get into a “where were you when?” digression, but I was a freshman in college at the time, living in southern Indiana .
Second: I pay my bills working for a company that is deeply involved in the rebuilding on the World Trade Center. Without getting specific (which I choose not to do, since that portion of my life has little if anything to do with my work on The Curiograph), this company has only the most tenuous connection to the September 11 Memorial Museum, but I have assisted in the past with the copy for WTC.com. My affiliation with this company enabled me to get a complimentary group ticket for the museum, but that is it. I was given no special access or guided tour. My experience of the museum was no different from any other visitor’s, with the possible exception that I was ushered to a shorter security line.
Finally, I am not a museum critic. Really, I don’t consider myself to be any type of critic, just a writer with an internet connection and an inflated estimation of my own opinions. My girlfriend Nicole, however, is an employee of a well-regarded art museum in New York. She has degrees in museum studies and art history, but aside from bouncing some ideas off her I’ve not involved her in the writing of this. So if you happen know her, don’t lambast her for my opinions.
That’s about all of it.
You enter the September 11 Memorial Museum at grade level and proceed down two stories to the floor of the bathtub, the basin that served as the foundation for the original World Trade Center and was excavated after the events of 9/11 . The first descent is an achievement of acclimatizing design, with the overhead light dimming as you proceed down a sloping promenade interrupted by columns on which are projected images of terror-struck observers and audio-recorded recollections from across the globe. At the end of the promenade is a landing, which affords the visitor a bird’s eye view of the Memorial Hall, the grand open space at the lowest level of the basin. You can see the crushed engine of Ladder 3 and the last column removed from Ground Zero. You can also see the slurry wall , which resembles the wall of an ancient mausoleum, its aging concrete like terracotta and rusted rebar protruding like sconces for votives and statuettes. It’s affecting without being shattering.
The final descent into the Memorial Hall is by way of a stairwell that runs parallel to the “Survivor’s Stairs,” the Vesey Street egress that delivered many WTC workers to safety. Walking along this artifact, I had the first inkling of the weaknesses of the museum. We get a lot of items that seem divorced from the narrative surrounding them, like these stairs that seem important but are displayed more like sculptures than recovered artifacts from a great crime.
Another example: at the center of the Memorial Hall is a quote from Virgil, which states that time will not erase the memory of the fallen. It’s a worthy sentiment (though it’s horrendously inappropriate in its original context in the Aeneid), but surrounding the quote is a series of squares in different hues of blue. The idea of this artwork (by Spencer Finch) is to deconstruct something everyone recalls in their memory of the attacks: how clear the sky was that morning. Interesting, yes, but robbed of the essential quality that gives it significance.
And again and again, I found myself looking at a signifier of that day that were estranged from their historical placement: the impromptu posters of the missing, the countless warped and twisted girders, the photos of the towers on the morning they were leveled, the repeated footage of Matt Lauer receiving word of the attack. All tastefully displayed, yes, but somehow disconnected.
This is more an issue of presentation, though. My other issue with the museum is one of methodology.
From the main hall, you can go to two of permanent exhibitions: the historical portion and the memorial portion. I chose to enter the September 11, 2001 Historical Exhibition, a choice I’m now keenly aware was the wrong one.
I cannot, really, speak against the exhibition, only try to decipher its reason for existing. At its best, it serves as an astonishingly detailed history for those who did not experience the attacks and a place of contemplation for the family, friends and responders. At its worst, it seems almost prurient. For those like myself, who can recall the shock and devastation of the day but was blessed not to be directly affected, this is a queasy-making place. There are alcoves throughout the Historical Exhibition that prominently feature images of victims falling from the burning towers and play recordings of final phone messages from the hijacked planes. A quote from a first responder, printed on the wall of one such alcove (made in reference to those who jumped to their deaths) says it was his duty not to turn away from the death, out of respect for those dying. But does that pertain to us?
This is called a Memorial Museum. It serves a double role of educating the public and honoring the dead. I don’t think the historical exhibition would benefit from being less graphic . I question the ideation behind the content. Does the exhibit need to be more analytical or more empathetic? I feel like the answer is the former. The whole exercise seemed in need of greater historic scale, a curatorial view beyond the attacks, but I’ll discuss that later in this article.
If I had a time machine that for some reason could only be used to alter my experience in this museum, I’d have turned right and spent the entire time in the Memorial Exhibition of the South Tower. It is quiet, subdued, reverent. It captures – without fire, footage or detritus – the essential horror of that day, that thousands of individuals suddenly ceased to exist, and that they were taken in so barbaric and public a fashion. By the time I entered the cosseted, glass-floored space of the In Memoriam Exhibition where visitors listen to the brief story of each of the 2,983 people killed in 2001 and 1993 , I had spent two hours in the museum by the time I entered In Memoriam, and my nerves were near breaking. I only experienced two lost lives – a father who would quiz his children on the way to work, a husband who remained in the tower to search for his mother-in-law who worked on another floor – but that filled in some gap that was left after nearly 13 years spent internalizing the event. I found I could not reconcile that human loss, multiplied several thousand times over, with the individual loss of each father, mother, sibling, child and friend.
As the years pass and those born after September 2001 come of age, I hope a bit more historical context is added to the museum. In the main hall is a captivating animated timeline that flashes names and terminology as they appeared in publications after 9/11/2001. I was stuck by words I had largely forgotten that were ubiquitous in the Bush years: Benazir Bhutto, Muqtada al-Sadr, Daniel Libeskind.
It’s as clichéd a cliché as we have these days, but that doesn’t make it untrue: that day changed everything. The arc of history from 9/11 onward was so skewed. The small, humanitarian military interventions of the Clinton era were replaced by incursions justified by the Bush Doctrine. After the three post-Watergate decades of attempted governing-power-decentralization, we saw an incredible reconsolidation of leverage in the executive branch. The way we traveled and watched the news changed. The way we discussed religion changed. Goofy action larks like True Lies and Air Force One were replaced by unflinchingly dour spectacles like the Bourne films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knights. We saw a reassertion of the American ethos, one based upon credulity, consumption, and a Churchillian sense of national mission. We were told that irony was dead, and while that wasn’t 100% accurate, we were living in a country where our politicians and commentators were expected to speak directly about the global challenges of the time.
In short, the significance of September 11, 2001, exists far beyond the attacks. This museum, however, is largely concerned with the hours surrounding the terrorist act and not much beyond that. I understand the distaste for allowing too much real estate to the attackers and their ideology . I also understand not wanting to get bogged down in the abuses and boondoggles of the Bush and Obama wars against terror. The museum should not belong to Cheney or Bin Laden; it should, as it does, belong to the victims, the survivors and the families.
I want to mention, however, the excellent Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, dedicated to honoring the dead and chronicling the history of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by right-wing antigovernment extremists. This museum threads the needle of memorializing the fallen and dissecting the ideology that led Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and other domestic terrorists to perpetrate such madness. Perhaps the curators have a less fraught task because that attack is further removed from the present or because its perpetrators were native-born. I doubt that is really the case, though. As the curators of the 9/11 museum consider permanent additions and temporary exhibitions, the Oklahoma City Museum would be a fine template.
Perhaps I’m swayed by my daily proximity to the work in Lower Manhattan, but I’m wholeheartedly in favor of the current plan for the World Trade Center site. I think it should be a place of gathering and memorial but also a center of commerce as it was. The four commercial towers that will bound  the Memorial Park are fine architectural feats, peaceful and elegant. The park itself is a space of wonder. Built around two square waterfalls at the footprints of the original towers, each perimeter lined with the names of the fallen, the park has benches and trees perfect for sitting and contemplation. Yet it is not dire or oppressive: it compels the visitor sit and be present. You experience the loss but are surrounded by the future, the resurrection, the resilience. The park is a hopeful place.
I cannot say the same for the museum. Taken as a whole, it is an ambivalent creation. The Memorial Hall is a resounding success, a worthy extension of the Memorial Park. The Historical Exhibition, though, is sort of a muddle, unsure of what it wants to accomplish other than throttle the visitor with its topic. As I said, I cannot speak ill of the museum, but I won’t be recommending it to anyone.
 I only ever saw the original World Trade Center in person through the window of a plane flying into New York in 1999, making a stop en route to Boston.
 The earth removed to create the bathtub in the 1960’s was used to construct the tony lower Manhattan neighborhood of Battery Park City.
 The 3-foot thick barrier of concrete below grade that held the Hudson back after the towers’ collapse and prevented massive flooding of the PATH and Subway tunnels.
 Leaving one of the aforementioned alcoves, I saw a woman, red-eyed and mouth agape, pursued by her teenage son. “Mom, you’re going the wrong way,” he said, taking her hand. The content had left her stricken, and he son seemed genuinely concerned. It was, perhaps, an echo of those pained phone calls we had with family members, friends and lovers, in 2001. Is this a worthy condition for a museum to elicit? I’m not sure I can answer that.
 Counter to the name of the museum, it is also covers the first attack on the World Trade Center, in which six were killed by a car bomb.
 A magnificent source for this background is Lawrence Wright’s minutely researched but heart-stoppingly engrossing book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. It charts the development of violent Islamism from the mid-twentieth century to present day both honestly and without excusing the oft-time savagery of the movement.
 They also faced trial and gave recorded depositions following the attack. To a certain extent, forcing McVeigh and Nichols to account for their actions might make it a simpler task to unpack the social and political issues surrounding the tragedy. Mohammed Atta and Osama Bin Laden will always exist as shadowy boogie men in our national imagination, in part, because the 9/11 attacks are their act of direct communication with us. I wonder if a public trial of the attacks’ architect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would help the nation process the trauma, more than a decade after the fact.
 1 WTC (formerly the Freedom Tower) is largely complete and should open in 2015. 4 WTC is open and hosting events; the Port Authority will be occupying office space there soon. Towers 2 and 3 are still being built.
A Final Note: The September 11 Memorial Museum has been embroiled in controversy practically since it opened, with chintzy cheese-plates in the gift shop, cocktail parties in the halls and Danny Meyer-helmed cafes in the works. Living in New York for nearly a decade, I can attest that the tragedy of 9/11 was commoditized by a thousand street vendors long before the poor decisions of this museum leadership. Their PR person should probably by fired six times over, but these are the type of outrages most of us should move past. And as to the café – I felt many things at this museum; hungry wasn’t one.