In The Shadow of Loss, Make the World New Again: The 9/11 Memorial Museum
These are images that have been seen many times before. Many, seeing them again, will still feel their muscles tense, as the events of that day live again in eternal playback: the weaponized 767 roars through the sky of pure video blue and into the World Trade Center’s south tower. Always to be shown in succession, we see it once more, and now a new angle from another channel. The plane is engulfed in steel rectilinearity, fiery reds and oranges blooming out of 24,000 gallons of fuel. Three minutes after nine, before even the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell, the catastrophe was well underway.
The aftereffects September 11th continue to ripple outward, in ways few might have foreseen. A calamity of this scale had never been televised; the destruction of the World Trade Center was an unprecedented media event that cut a deep scar across Lower Manhattan. Within hours, myths were both built up and torn asunder, as a formerly impervious beacon of capitalism was annihilated, nearly bringing the financial capital of the world to its knees. An array of unanticipated events happened that day, and just as quickly as blame could be assigned, unexplored intelligence was found, with so many cascading failures leading to colossal disaster. The global military, political, and legal campaigns initiated in the aftermath proved to be an unexpectedly violent beginning for the 21st century, all leading from the heart of a complex once triumphantly declared by its architect to be a shining monument to world peace.
The original towers by Minoru Yamasaki were forced icons of urban renewal, built to specification in a complex that never truly encouraged the public to venture into the unwelcoming plaza that lay at its heart. While undoubtedly a fine place to work, the massive project was, at the core, another attempt to create an airless, high-Modernist utopia for commerce. The new tower is a fortress; those who work there will enter through the securitized and blast-resistant lobby, or one day, through Santiago Calatrava’s nearby skeletal PATH station, years delayed and billions of dollars over budget. The everlasting loss of the site is illustrated in the competition-winning design of architect Michael Arad; his memorial of two yawning cubic pits, which replicate the towers’ immense foundations, are dazzling feats of engineering. Their synthetic waterfalls flow with precise technical choreography, and are sure to be the primary stop on the pilgrimages undertaken by those still unsure that the events of that day did, in fact, occur. This plaza is rigidly patrolled, and codes of conduct are enforced, with the expectation that public grief is to be measured while here.While the luminous One World Trade Center is now present, built to a soaringly patriotic 1,776 feet, it is Arad’s monuments and the adjacent, subterranean 9/11 Memorial Museum that have been tasked with the active remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001. The museum promises more than answers, or even simply the means to navigate a dark and terrible day — in these exhibition spaces, one is promised a direction in which one can focus their grief and sorrow. Now, with its solemn grand opening, the space is finally coalescing into its idealized form. With the surging crowds of summer, it is immediately evident that many of the complaints made against the master plan of the original World Trade Center could be made of this iteration.
The museum offers an involving narrative to follow, to lose oneself in. What awaits each visitor is a thoroughly controlled experience, activated through architecture upon entering the airy aboveground glass and steel pavilion, which seems to collapse in upon itself. On the descent down to the exhibition spaces, lighter woods give way to darker ones. Although the museum is new construction, it is sited in the excavated chasm between the foundations of the twin towers. The path down is revealed to be a ramp, an allusion to the larger one that was formed in the clean up of ground zero and slowly evolved into an emblem of the painstaking rebirth underway. At its terminus, the ramp transforms into a mezzanine, perched above the enormous “Foundation Hall,” which is flanked by the vast original slurry-retaining wall built to contain the Hudson. The wall is now left exposed in what is perhaps the museum’s most dramatic example of loss. The profusion of artifacts begins on the final escalator ride. Throughout, the hall is traversed overhead by the long mezzanine, twisted through the s-curve of the foundations in alignment with the acutely buckled structural columns left standing after the buildings’ monumental collapse. Installed in the center of the vast hall is the museum’s sole commissioned artwork. Spencer Finch’s Trying to Remember the Color on That September Morning (2014) consists of 2,983 attempts to replicate in watercolor the shade of blue of the sky on September 11th, one sheet of paper per life lost.
The first gallery contains a slideshow of lives violently ended. The display, called “In Memorium,” consists of a black box theater surrounded by identifying photographs, revealing the analog age that September 11th belongs to. For some of the dead, no images exist, and in their place a memorial oak leaf is displayed, mirroring trees planted on the surface above. Inside the theater, more images and brief biographies of those who died are projected, each name painstakingly read out in metronymic regularity. While the cavalcade of loss and grief extends throughout the museum, in this space it is allowed to pause, one of the few breaks permitted along the planned route.
“September 11th, 2001,” the central exhibition, offers horrors of a kind that one is more accustomed to viewing through the lens of institutionalized history. It is rare that contemporary events are seen under the particular glare that is offered here, as this recent history is still very much with us, it allows a visceral recall not possible with the distant past. As this museum is no doubt expected to serve as a shrine for many, it is appropriate that it contains endless individual altars. Mutilated ID cards, singed cash, tattered snapshots, and illegible memoranda are all cataloged and displayed under vitrines. While the appearance of these items here seems an invasive exposure of private lives, as representatives of the compacted contents of a thousand desk drawers, the inventory has its intended effect, turning the mundane and personal into heroic relics. Tissue dispensers are discreetly placed throughout the galleries of this detailed chronicle of the attacks and their aftermath. Images assault at every turn, staggered, staged, spread across the walls — each gallery offers a salon-style rendering of destruction. We see the horrified faces of onlookers, the firefighter’s climbing the boundless flights of stairs to their death, and the ashen survivors staggering away from the remains of the World Trade Center. The event has been claimed as the most photographed in human history. These images depict the scenes that made the day as dark as it was, but seen in such profusion, they form less detail with each new surface, eventually reducing tragedy to texture. While the pictures may be well known, the audio presented is not. In addition to the sounds of visitors, the galleries are inundated with the looping playback of final desperate voicemails and emergency service dispatchers, some requiring handsets to hear, while others crackle over invisible speakers, often still audible after one has moved along to another gallery. The audiovisual density is confounding — multilayered to a degree that eventually little can truly register. It is this extraordinary bombardment of things that forms the core of the experience.
In a gallery near the exhibition’s end, an original architectural model of the World Trade Center complex is displayed. It is a space dedicated to the era before the buildings’ destruction, filled with postcards and stills from iconic films, the famous skyline seeming oddly historical to eyes now accustomed to seeing its new alignment. The maquette appears the embodiment of breezy period-contemporaneity, with intricately etched sheet metal scaled to the massive planned heights, while models of 1960s vintage cars encircle the plaza, ants next to the towering behemoths of Western capitalism they swarm by. The wistful quotes on the walls from those involved with the project’s conception hearken to a future we have left behind, a mid-century sense of revitalization that most governments have now neither the will nor the finances to implement. As constructed, the museum resembles an eerie simulacrum of the commercial space it memorializes, but in this form it appears to be history for the sake of history, with little attention paid to the context of the original.
We no longer live in the world that existed when the World Trade Center’s master plan was unveiled, where a nation’s aspirations could be shored up in cascading tensile steel. The glittering monumentality of the towers is still present at this site, now re-purposed and rendered through a screen of security measures, the sense of progress once attached to them now long gone. There is scant opportunity to contemplate this, in these spaces, with all attention held captive by the finely structured sea of grief. While the reasons behind the attacks are carefully explained in text and video, they are secondary to the canonization of suffering presented. In every gallery there is a desperate search for an elusive significance to the day’s events, which, of course, often cannot be definitively located. A great deal was lost at the site of this museum, most likely more than we care to acknowledge, and certainly more than any monument could be expected to attest to. The resolutely tasteful gift shop proves to be a surprisingly effective commemoration. The space provides a tactile transport back to a now-lost Before, replete in gleaming warm white lights, a world conjured once more through souvenirs emblazoned with the twin towers’ stark profile. It is a sleight of hand not lost on visitors: a chance to buy the past, a token from what now seems a halcyon age of assurance that, however illusory, is sorely missed.