It doesn’t feel like 15 years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, nor two years since the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened at Ground Zero. Yet, somehow, they have, and the memorial site at Ground Zero is so familiar and so firmly embedded on the tourist route that a group of lads on a stag party (or bachelor party, to American readers) will nonchalantly pose in front of the two sobering memorial pools, a blow-up doll alongside them.
The stag photos rightly caused controversy this week, but the outrage didn’t extend to the preening and pouting fellow tourists around them. One couple took a kissing selfie, perhaps blissfully unaware of their surroundings or just too self-absorbed to care. The thing is, it’s a privilege to stand at the memorial. It should be a place where you stop to reflect, whether you choose to go to the adjoining museum or not. If you are brave enough to face the Memorial Museum, this is what you can expect.
The main exhibition content is permanent, right down to a portion of the stairs in the Foundation Hall which were taken from one of the towers. Many exhibits across the three blended sections feel extreme to the unprepared or the casual tourist, but you judge if you can handle them. With a steady stream of people beside you, it’s easy to drift unnoticed past the more upsetting pictures and clips in the key ‘historical exhibition’ part. There are also some early exit doors for anyone feeling really distressed; my mum, bless her, has to duck out early.
However, to speed past everything would be to miss the point altogether: this is about confronting the horror of September 11th (and the previous attack on February 26th 1993). It’s not sanitised, for obvious reasons.
The most disturbing clip seemed fairly innocuous: a man having a cup of coffee on the sidewalk. Behind him, the North tower burns (I don’t know how he can look away. Is he unaware?). A huge plane appears to the left of the screen, much bigger than you imagined. It smashes into the South tower without losing speed, as though it’s a car ripping a crash barrier to shreds. The fireball is instant and all-consuming, and it’s as if the plane has disappeared into a swirling, smoking black hole.
That scene replays on a loop and you know what’s coming, but it’s no less horrible the second, third, fourth time. My sister watches it six times, almost powerless to walk away. My dad is wide-eyed and visibly uncomfortable.
The Unvarnished Truth
I’m similarly dumbstruck by the images of the ‘jumpers’, who felt they had no choice but to jump to their deaths to avoid the flames, but I admire the sensitivity of the display, which is partially hidden by a wall. One young girl steers her younger sister out of the area, knowing it won’t be suitable. Those of us who remain are stunned into silence as a digital photo montage plays alongside quotes from traumatised onlookers. One witness on the ground said she felt she owed it to the victims not to look away.
According to Ellen Borakove, spokesperson for the New York Medical Examiner’s Office, “A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide. These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out.” This extract from a USA Today article points out that jumpers (largely from the North tower) saved lives:
“I looked at a couple of people jumping, and that was it. I’d seen enough. I said, ‘We’ve got to get the hell out of here,’ ” says Jaede Barg, who worked for Aon on the south tower’s 100th floor.
Many south tower survivors say the sight of people jumping created an urgency that caused them to leave immediately and ignore announcements that it was safe to return to their desks. About 1,400 people evacuated the upper floors before the second jet hit.
Let me be clear: visiting the 9/11 Museum is not some kind of heightened ‘ruin porn’ experience, where you marvel at destroyed buildings and admire their photographic potential. Seeing a mangled fire truck, buckled steel supports and the ID cards of those lost cannot be categorised as artistic or cultural – it’s just forlorn evidence of tragedy. Learning about those trapped above the points of impact is particularly upsetting.
A video area from the Memorial section remembers each victim in turn, with tributes from family, friends and colleagues, making them so much more than the name and number the reports reduced them to. The most over-used words to describe the victims, at least that I hear, are ‘kind’, ‘selfless’, ‘generous’, ‘smiling’, ‘funny’. People full of life, looking out for others.
The museum’s director, Alice M. Greenwald, sums up why this individual remembrance is so crucial. She wrote: ‘ we want to remember people for how they lived, not just for how they died. And, in this sacred space, the number 2,983 is never an abstraction.’
Post-9/11 damage is also rightly explored, from Asbestos-related illnesses to psychological trauma, and a poignant souvenir shop window transplanted whole, complete with thick layers of dust and debris. A later section also deals with the planning of the attack, though it’s hard to take in once those destructive images are seared into your brain. By the time you emerge from the exhibits, mustering enthusiasm for the museum shop is tricky; I decide not to go, feeling numb from what I’ve seen, and I just sit in silence in the Foundation Hall.
It also seems bizarre that, aside from understandably offering free entry to relatives of those who died and to rescue workers who helped at the site, the museum tempts everyday visitors with membership. Unless you were using the content for a university thesis or some other kind of research project, or you meticulously studied each new item added to the growing collection, why keep returning to such a traumatic place?
I can’t imagine having the stomach to view the exhibits again and again, and for its content to be a little more normalised every time. Yes, it’s great to keep educating people about what happened, but I think that comes from fresh visitors, not repeat customers who can get discounts at the shop and cafe. You can also make an independent donation to the museum, which makes more sense to me.
Then again, the outdoor memorial pools have become so normalised that visitors think nothing of brandishing their selfie sticks and fixed grins for the ultimate ‘here I am on the spot where nearly 3,000 people died #wow #blessed #YOLO’ selfie. Maybe some of them could do with an annual pass to the indoor sights.
Visiting Notes: The National September 11 Museum, 181 Greenwich Street, is open 09:00-20:00 Monday-Thursday and 09:00-21:00 Friday-Saturday, with last entry two hours before closing. The museum is closed to the public on September 11th, with access reserved for 9/11 family members. Be prepared for security checks, and don’t talk on your phone whilst in the exhibition rooms.
Tickets are $24 (adults), $18 (over-65s, US college students and veterans), $15 (children aged 7-17) and free for under-7s and museum members. Entry is free for everyone from 17:00 on Tuesdays (last entry 18:00). Guided tours of the museum or the memorial are available, for an extra charge, when you book your ticket.
The outdoor memorial is open daily from 07:30-21:00, except on September 11th, when public hours are 15:00-24:00.