After a decade marked by deep grief, partisan rancor, war and financial boondoggles, the National September 11 Memorial Museum at ground zero is finally opening ceremonially today. It delivers a gut-punch experience — though if ever a new museum had looked, right along, like a disaster in the making, this one did.
Was it going to be primarily a historical document, a monument to the dead or a theme-park-style tourist attraction? How many historical museums are built around an active repository of human remains, still being added to? How many theme parks bring you, repeatedly, to tears?
That's what the museum does. It's emotionally overwhelming, particularly for New Yorkers who were in the city on that apocalyptic September day and the paranoia-fraught weeks that followed, but almost as certainly for the estimated 2 billion people around the globe who followed the horror unfolding on television, radio and the Internet.
Anguished, angry questions about the museum, raised by families of some of the 2,983 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, have been widely reported. Debates over purpose, propriety and protocol are still in the air. But the work inched forward, and the museum that emerged is true to its initial and literally fundamental goal: to tell the Sept. 11 story at ground zero bedrock.
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While the accompanying National September 11 Memorial — two granite basins of cascading water that fill the twin tower footprints — is viewable from a street-level plaza, the museum is almost entirely subterranean.
The drama starts, low key, on the plaza level with an above ground entry pavilion midway between the memorial fountains. Designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, it's a glass box set at a sharp, dizzy tilt, like a tipping building or a listing ship. The blond-wood atrium, with its coat checks, a small cafe and a closed-off room for the use of Sept. 11 families, is atmospherically neutral except for an unmistakable sight: two of the immense steel trident columns that were the signature features of the twin tower facades.
Recorded sound, once inadmissible in conventional museums, plays a major role. So does scale. You emerge from the corridor's close, oppressive aural cloud onto a platform overlooking a yawning space and an archaeological monolith: a 60-foot-high exposed section of the World Trade Center's slurry wall. This thick, foundational barrier of poured concrete, laid before construction began in 1966, was, and is, the bulwark between the Trade Center and the Hudson River. When the twin towers collapsed, there was fear that the wall would give, flooding the site. It cracked, but it held.
A long, descending ramp leads visitors down seven stories to true ground zero. The ramp was inspired by an access road that was created during the early recovery phase.
When the path finally ends at bedrock, it leaves a choice of ways to go, toward a subdued exhibition commemorating those killed or toward a disturbingly vivid evocation of the events themselves.
The commemorative display is the equivalent of a life-honoring memorial service perpetually in progress. Photographs of nearly 3,000 people cover the walls of a gallery. The same faces, along with biographical portraits and spoken reminiscences, can be pulled up on touch screens and projected large in another room. Some 14,000 still unidentified or unclaimed Sept. 11 remains reside, unseen, in an adjacent repository, at the request of a vast majority of families.
The museum's larger exhibition addresses that September day itself. Winding through several galleries, it uses videos, audio recordings, photographs and hundreds of objects to document the events, minute by minute, from 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower, and on past 10:28 a.m., when that tower fell, by which time three other planes were pulverized, the Pentagon was in flames, and thousands of people were gone.
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The prevailing story in the museum is framed in moral terms, as a story of angels and devils. In this telling, the angels are many and heroic, the devils few and vile, a band of Islamist radicals, as they are identified in a cut-and-dried, contextless and unnuanced film called The Rise of al-Qaida, seen at the end of the exhibition.
The narrative is not so much wrong as drastically incomplete. It is useful history, not deep history; news, not analysis.
Still, within its narrow perspective, maybe because of it, the museum has done something powerful. And, fortunately, it seems to regard itself as a work in progress, involved in investigation, not summation.
I hope so. If it stops growing and freezes its narrative, it will become, however affecting, just another Sept. 11 artifact. If it tackles the reality that its story is as much about global politics as about architecture, about a bellicose epoch as much as about a violent event, it could deepen all our thinking about politics, morality and devotion.