Who will visit the 9/11 museum?

A featured reader comment at the New York Times’s review of the September 11 Memorial Museum, which was dedicated Thursday morning, began like this: “Having lived here in NYC during that time I most assuredly will never visit this museum. I do not need it to remember nor do I want to remember it.”

I lived in New York City at the time, and I still have competing desires to forget and remember. Two years ago this spring, I visited the museum while writing for a company involved in its design. Work was well underway and the opening was considered imminent—this before Hurricane Sandy and the damage it caused adding further delay to a project already long beset by problems, not the least of which were reasonable questions over the advisability of building it in the first place. What would it contain (“exhibit” certainly didn’t sound like the appropriate verb)? What would it accomplish? And would visitors really be charged admission to a place also functioning as a repository for the remains of those killed in the attacks? (Yes: $24, as it turns out.) Publicized political tussling and construction setbacks didn’t help matters, nor did announced estimates of $60 million in annual operating costs. 

It was warm and sunny the day I visited; I was given a hardhat to wear and, along with a few colleagues, followed a project manager down into the site.

“Down” was the only way to go, after passing the pair of steel tridents that famously survived the collapse and that mark the museum’s entrance, then following a steadily descending ramp deep into the bedrock as daylight disappeared. There was still plenty of evidence of major work being done—heavy equipment, barricaded passageways, temporary lighting strung from the ceiling—but already some of the major pieces were in place, including what has come to be known as the “survivors’ staircase.” We were shown the sixty-foot section of exposed slurry wall that marked one edge of the tower’s footprint and that still holds the Hudson River at bay. Then, on the cavernous floor, the larger of the artifacts collected, having recently been lowered in by crane: the battered firetruck of Ladder Company 3, twisted remnants of “impact steel,” and a mysterious tangle of metal and wires we learned was an elevator motor.

Not in place that day were the numerous smaller artifacts that have since been added, some ten thousand in total--the purses and wallets and eyeglasses and other personal objects retrieved from the wreckage. Also since added: the Toshiba laptop belonging to Ramzi Yousef (a perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), and the interactive display of photographs of the people killed on September 11. I suppose I understand the purpose of the inclusion of these in a space serving both as a memorial and as a museum, and I can perhaps even allow myself to empathize with the “design intent” of evoking maximum emotional response. I’m just not sure I would have wanted to see such things that day; I’m not sure I want to see them now.

When we came up out of the unfinished museum, it was just after noon and there was a long line of visitors waiting to get into the street-level memorial park, which had already opened by then. Some ate ice cream; others drank lemonade. All probably had their own reasons for visiting, just as I had mine for going to get a look at the unfinished museum, even though I can’t say exactly what they were. Curiosity, maybe, not only about what was inside but how I might react to it, just over a decade on. Maybe it’s curiosity that will draw those who decide to visit the completed, $700 million, 110,000-square-foot memorial museum when it opens to the public next Wednesday. That commenter on the Times story won’t be among them, though: “Life goes on,” the commenter continued, “and we carry the pain and loss of those we loved. The museum is not needed by us. Maybe others.” More than two-and-half-million of those are expected within the first year.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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