New York’s 9/11 Memorial Museum to open in May

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Director hopes institution will resonate equally with victims’ families and visiting tourists

By Julia Halperin. Web only
Published online: 25 March 2014

The 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion

The 9/11 Memorial Museum is due to open in New York on 21 May after a two-and-a-half-year delay, it was announced this week. The institution, which cost $700m to construct, is among the most expensive—and embattled—museum projects in recent history. Since planning began in 2008, the museum has come up against nearly every imaginable obstacle, including clashes with the local government, budget problems, hurricane damage and a highly publicised lawsuit. “We’ve had deliberations, conversations and arguments over every inch of the space,” says Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director.

Unlike most memorial museums, the 9/11 Museum is dedicated to an event that many of its visitors experienced first-hand. Curators must balance the needs of a public that may still be traumatised with a sense of duty to future generations who will not necessarily be as familiar with or invested in the tragedy. The final product needed to feel “equally authentic to a family member of a victim and a tourist from Peoria, Illinois”, Greenwald says. And if the popularity of the 9/11 memorial plaza is any indication—it opened in 2011 and has received over ten million visitors—the museum will be well attended.

An underground museum

Situated beneath the footprint of the former Twin Towers, the subterranean museum is “not a building”, Greenwald says, but rather “an archaeological excavation”. Exhibition displays had to be planned around immovable architectural elements including the so-called “Survival Staircase”, which many evacuees followed to safety, and a segment of an original retaining wall. As visitors descend nearly 70 feet to the original foundations of the World Trade Center, they follow a path similar to one recovery workers used to remove debris in the aftermath of the attacks.

The museum will be divided into two parts: one wing, located where the South Tower once stood, is dedicated to those who died in the 2011 attacks and an earlier bombing in 1993. Using an interactive monitor, visitors can sift through personal effects and photographs of the victims donated by their families. The museum also plans to permanently house the remains of unidentified 9/11 victims, which previously had been held in the New York City medical examiner’s office. The remains will be placed behind a wall inscribed with the quote, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time”, and will be inaccessible to the public as well as museum staff.

The second wing, in the footprint of the North Tower, chronicles the events leading up to 11 September, the day itself and its aftermath. An algorithm aims to track how the attacks shape life today by scanning news stories worldwide for references to 9/11 and projecting them onto a monitor in real time. Visitors will also be able to contribute their own memories of the day to a growing digital archive and listen to the reflections of famous figures like the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the former US Attorney General Eric Holder.

If the underground experience becomes too intense, visitors can return to the glassed-in upstairs lobby, which is designed to offer a clear view of the new One World Trade Center above—a triumphant testament to the recovery effort.

Controversy abounds

The museum, which counts the actors Billy Crystal and Robert de Niro as board members, has been mired in controversy since well before opening day. Leadership recently came under fire for the decision to charge a $24 admission fee. Some family members of 9/11 victims called the price “outrageous”. Greenwald defends the move: “The museum was always the revenue driver that would enable the memorial [plaza] to be free,” Greenwald says. The institution received over $300m in public funds for construction, but will not get any governmental support for its estimated annual $60m operating budget.

The museum is also locked in a protracted court battle with the organisation American Atheists, which is appealing a lawsuit over the decision to display a cross-shaped beam salvaged from the rubble of the attacks. The group claims that the 9/11 Museum’s plan to exhibit the beam, which became a symbol of hope for rescue workers, violates the US Civil Rights Act because it is a religious symbol. The original suit was dismissed last year after a judge determined the beam was an artefact of historical, not simply religious, significance.

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