New York’s 9/11 Memorial and Museum Has Become a Monument to Sadness and BraveryCulture Watch
tags: 911 Memorial and Museum
9:35 a.m. September 11, 2001: I was at home in New Jersey on my day off from my University teaching position. My wife Marjorie was at work as a learning disability specialist at her high school. I had been up for about three hours and prepped for the next week’s classes. I did not watch television or listen to the radio during that time.
I had to call the academic department secretary where I worked, Jeannine, for some reason.
“Are you watching television?” she said immediately and loudly.
“Turn it on. Two big jetliners have crashed into the World Trade Center,” she said in an agitated voice.
“The World Trade Center?”
“About a half hour ago,” she said.
I thought, and said, just one thing. “Terrorists.”
Fifteen years later I stood deep in the underground halls of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York looking at exhibits of that terrible day and remembered where I was when I found out about the attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and at the site of a plane crash in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Around me were people from all over the world who had come to honor those killed on 9/11. I talked to an historical docent (guide) along with three men in their twenties from Germany. Like many others, I sent a message to those fallen on the dozen or so electronic message boards set up in one of the halls. The teenaged girl next to meet wrote tenderly, sadly, “Thanks to all in the NYPD and NYFD.” She was from El Paso, Texas. I could detect French accents in a group of men and women chatting nearby. Several women from Great Britain walked past me.
The attack on New York’s World Trade Center fifteen years ago was one of the great catastrophes in American history, in world history, and the somber and yet sensational 9/11 Memorial and Museum, with the already fabled twin reflecting pools outside of the building, is both a tribute to the men and women who perished there and an historical monument to the event.
The museum is a little more than two years old and has been a huge success with nearly seven million visitors from all over the U.S. and 175 foreign countries (28 million have visited the Memorial pools since they opened in 2011). It is built deep underground in the heart of the glistening new World Trade Center complex. Its creators, designers and managers have achieved a nearly impossible feat – to open a museum that is an engaging, informative and unique educational study of the terrible event and at the same time a somber tribute to the people who worked and died there, as well as all of the hundreds of police and firemen who fell with them.
They have also constructed a museum that is very easy to get around in, with exhibits presented in an interesting way under a vast underground ceiling. There are lots of gargantuan pieces of the twin towers that command the eye but also very tiny TV screens that can get you addicted to the story of the horrific attack. The museum organizers have also, wisely, unlike most museums, set up hundreds of seats in convenient areas for visitors to rest for a bit. Floors are connected by long escalators and plenty of easy to find and use elevators.
The chatter of the many visitors in the enormous museum at any one time is quiet. Little kids are hushed by respectful parents. I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., once and the visitors there exhibited that same sense of reverence.
I listened in on lot of conversations at the museum and two things were evident. First, many people walk through the exhibits of the many preserved artifacts to gain a clearer idea of what happened. Second, many wander through the halls to relive what happened. People are transfixed by a very long timeline of events and will tell spouses or friends, “I remember that….” Many exchange stories with each other about where they were or what they were doing when the two jetliners smashed into the twin towers and exploded.
If you are ever in New York and have a sense of history, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a perfect place to spend a few hours. The best way to start a visit to the museum is to sit in on a fifteen minute video that tells you the story. Then you go to the Foundation Hall, the huge room the size of a football field underground, and then an artifacts exhibit hall adjacent to it.
The men and women who work at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum have always been impressed with how much foreign visitors know of the story and how deeply moved they are, often just as deeply as Americans and even New Yorkers themselves.
“That’s because people from other countries all saw it on television,” said a docent named Elliott. “It was like it happened to them, in their city. Not only did they see it on television, but, like Americans, they watched television news of it for days, weeks. It was an attack on everybody, everywhere, not just New Yorkers, and foreigners who come here tell me that.”
And, too, foreigners have been victims of their own terrorist attacks since September of 2001, especially those from cities such as London, Paris and Berlin. The day before my visit a terrorist madman drove a truck through an outdoor market in Berlin and killed twelve holiday shoppers and injured dozens of others. All of the people from those countries struck by terrorists, and these days there are a lot of them, can relate to what happened at the World Trade Center back in 2001.
You see a number of exhibits, from the actual destroyed NYFD firetrucks to parts of the TV antenna that topped one of the towers to the lone surviving window pane of the 40,000 panes destroyed. There are several of the enormous steel girders from the towers, huge pieces of concrete and endless videos of that awful day.
One of the most interesting exhibits is the huge concrete ‘slurry’ wall. That wall was part of a “bathtub” structure of cement and steel walls built to keep the water of the Hudson River away from the foundation of the towers. If those walls had cracked from the attack the water would have seeped through the towers and into the streets of lower Manhattan, probably flooding some of the subway tunnels, as Hurricane Sandy did years later.
The most popular exhibit is that of dozens of monitors that play television news coverage of the tragedy, from the first photos of both towers burning to the famous pictures of New Yorkers fleeing the destruction and carnage under an ash filled sky. People are just transfixed by that coverage. And, never ending, from one TV monitor or another, everybody hears the terrifying, haunting sounds of the wailing sirens from all of those hundreds of police cars and fire trucks.
And then there are all of the videos of the police and fire personnel walking into the towers and staircases completely unaware that in a few minutes the twin towers are going to collapse on top of them. Those videod bring your heart up into your throat and a tear into your eye.
The museum offers plenty of lectures, presentations and programs in a large and comfortable auditorium in addition to a vast and complex education program.
To me, the most riveting, and sorrowful, exhibit in the museum to me was the famous “last column,” the final, large column of cement, draped in American flags, that was taken away from the World Trade Center site as a band played Taps for the fallen. There were photos all over it, plus hundreds of inscriptions by recovery workers. There, right in the middle of the column, written very large, were the words “God bless.”
Yes, now, fifteen years later, God bless them all.
For further information on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum go to its website, www.911memorial.org.
comments powered by Disqus
- Male Historians Have Long Dominated Public Debates. Is Charlottesville a Turning Point?
- Kevin Levin says he’s changed his mind about Confederate statues
- Scholar of African history says his Jewish background didn’t stop him from writing about Muslims and Africa
- Jon Meacham points out why Lee should go but Washington should stay
- "I've studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here's what to do about them."