9/11 museum a powerful reminder of the unthinkable

With the controversy over Trade Center museum faded, time to reconsider its impact on our hearts, minds

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There is a long list of things that the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum doesn't accomplish, or doesn't fully accomplish.

It doesn't deal much with the messy, ongoing aftermath of the attacks of that day. It doesn't present the world's most nuanced portrait of the rise of al-Qaeda. It doesn't offer itself cheaply, charging adults $24 admission. It doesn't forego the opportunity to sell souvenirs in a gift shop, although the notorious cheese plate depicting 9/11 attack sites in an outline of the United States has been removed, reportedly, from the menu of available goods.

Some critics have panned the below-ground-zero museum for its literalism, sometimes in contrast to Michael Arad's eloquent waterfalls above that constitute the National September 11 Memorial. Perhaps the harshest was Philip Kennicott, in the Washington Post, who called the museum, which opened in late May, "an oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism."

In other words, it doesn't satisfy everybody with an interest in the museum, which is to say, almost everybody. Given the institution's long and difficult gestation as it struggled to balance the interests of victims' family members, New York City, religious groups and more, controversy over the end result was almost inevitable.

But experiencing the museum first hand a couple of weeks ago, and thinking and reading about it since, I remain an admirer of what is accomplished within its walls on both an emotional and an intellectual level.

You don't go to something calling itself a 9/11 museum in order to avoid confrontation with the events of that day or the artifacts that help explain it. If you want a symbolic experience, that's what the memorial up above is for, and it delivers powerful suggestions of absence and continuation as water cascades into pits in the outlines of the missing World Trade Center towers.

You go to a museum of that title because you want, in some way, to relive the day, maybe as a sign of respect to the victims, maybe because, almost 13 years on, you feel the details — the facts or the feelings — slipping from your memory.

This museum piles detail upon detail, especially in the 25,000-square-foot permanent historical exhibition. This is the one that Chicago exhibit designer David Layman (profiled by the Chicago Tribune in March) had a profound hand in.

Layman Design came in relatively late in the process, but earned credit from museum director Alice Greenwald for "pulling you into the story" in a way that a previous design hadn't, and for resolving difficult issues, such as how to handle a section on people who had to choose whether to die in the towers or jump from them.

But before you get to that exhibition, you follow an ingenious path into the terror. The museum's entrance — tickets are sold by time of entry — is at ground level, toward the northeast corner of the 8-acre site in lower Manhattan where the towers once stood.

Even as you enter, you see pieces of the twin towers: the "tridents," iconic remnants of the North Tower's facade so named because of their three-pronged top pieces. At 70 feet tall (and 50 tons each), they connect the entry to a sort of welcome gallery one floor below. There, you can see the word "SAVE" spray-painted on one of the metal pieces, and already you are thinking about multiple meanings.

The gift shop resides on this floor, not on an exit path but off to one side so that going in is a matter of choice. The items are not uniformly reverential (raincoats, neckties) but the overall tone isn't nakedly commercial, either. While a high proportion of what is for sale is books about the attacks, it seems unfair to fault someone who, after being moved by the museum's content, chooses to remember their visit through a T-shirt or a pen instead.

The museumgoer's journey proceeds from outside the attacks, where almost all of us were, to the epicenter of them. First visitors hear audio recordings and see photos of people across the country responding to the news of September 11, 2001. The where-were-you scenario guides you back toward the day.

A gently pitched ramp leads down into the main body of the museum, like a descent into catacombs. (The lighting, too, is muted like in a cathedral, and the quasi-religious feelings will continue.) Along this route, the story begins to be told, but in fragments. There is a photograph of the still-tall towers at night, for instance, adjacent to a massive steel beam from one of them bent to a seemingly impossible degree by the impact of American Airlines Flight 11.

A turn in the ramp allows for a long pause to take in the imposing slab, the Slurry Wall, that dominates Foundation Hall, the museum's most open and monumental gallery, below. The wall, engineering wizardry in its day, was built to hold back Hudson River water from the buildings' foundations, but its survival on the site became one of many hopeful symbols for New Yorkers. Mounted adjacent to it is another of them, the Last Column that stood at the attack site as cleanup proceeded and became a repository for memorial messages.

Ahead of the main floor stands one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. The Survivors' Stairs, named for their role as the path that hundreds of attack survivors took to safety, is perched alongside a new staircase. People walked these actual steps, the location of which protected them from falling debris.

The museum is structured so that the most harrowing features can, like the gift shop, be avoided. A sensitive visitor — a child, perhaps — might stay only in the outer galleries, dominated by large-scale pieces: a scorched and twisted fire truck, for instance, or the broadcast antenna from atop one of the buildings mangled into something sculptural.

On the main, bottom level, four floors below the street, designers have preserved the perimeter foundations of the towers, too, with walkways that let you connect with the lost buildings kinetically, by tracing their very outlines.

These remnants help give the museum a distinctive, dank smell. The dirt from the foundations and the water leaking (safely, we are told) from the bottom of the Slurry Wall combine to, again, remind you of medieval catacombs.

Within the perimeters of the towers — and, remember, directly beneath the memorial waterfalls up at plaza level — are the museum's two most visceral features.

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