NEW YORK — I happened to be at home watching live television when the towers I’d visited a decade earlier collapsed after being struck by two planes. It wasn’t until this month that I made it back to lower Manhattan, where the smoking wound has since been filled with a memorial and museum.

By virtue of the space it fills, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum speaks authentically through architecture and archaeology to the sensitivities of the 2,983 people killed. Taken as a whole, it does not disappoint, but its cautious approach fails to paint the full picture.

The site is very much part of modern New York and American – if not world – history. Almost everyone old enough remembers where they were on that day 16 years ago. The extremist attack on the Twin Towers may be familiar to all educated global citizens, but the museum elevates the act through multimedia exhibitions.

After queuing 20 minutes, I was allowed into the site where the South Tower once stood. Entering the museum one is led through exhibitions awaiting on the lower floors.

The first impression – after descending via an unusually long escalator to the concourse lobby – was the sight of remains: a pair of giant fork-like steel pillars, and parts of the familiar lower structure of the Word Trade Center buildings.

Memories of 3,000 Kept Alive

At the “In Memoriam” space, touch screen displays teach visitors about each of the 2,983 killed in New York, Washington DC and other cities affected by the coordinated extremist attacks on that fateful day.

Even if one has no relatives who died, the interactive features – full of faces of those killed allotted into each box – tempt one to learn more about the personal life of those killed. Many stories are accompanied by photos of victims’ marriages of childhoods.

This added approach beyond plain name listing, means people can spend more time at the museum than would be expected. Looking at the human side of those killed instead of an overwhelmingly long list of names prevents people from just moving on immediately.

A touch screen at the memorial site allows visitors to search for the names of specific victims.

Those who died carrying out heroic acts in the face of terror are recorded and honored. This includes 412 first responders (441, the museum says), of which 343 were firefighters.

A photo in the exhibition shows a group of dazed-looking young firefighters heading up the stairs – to near certain death – of a tower about to collapse, while office workers make their way down.

But it’s not just those who were committed to carry on with their life-saving duties that are honored at the museum.

The exhibit displays an ordinary red bandana belonging to Welles Crowther, 24, an equities trader who became known as “the man in red bandana.” Crowther saved at least 10 lives on the 78th floor of the South Tower at the cost of his own while wearing the apparel as protective gear. He owned many red bandanas, the one displayed was a gift from his parents to the museum.

The display includes moving pictures of victims jumping off the flaming towers. Not to be missed was a compilation of SMS messages and voice mail sent by those trapped in both towers, showing the raw humanity at the verge of near-certain death.

Archaeology of Extremism

 

 

The museum is not just realistic because of the exhibits, but because it is part of Ground Zero where many died.

The “Last Column” emulates a modern totem at Foundation Hall extending three levels down to the ground level. It is filled with graffiti and displayed in a video showing how it became the symbol of loss and resistance, accompanied out in a pomp ceremony, draped in the American flag at the site of the cleanup.

Then there’s the gigantic Slurry Wall, an engineering marvel that held despite the attack and prevented nearby rivers from flooding the city’s subway system, which ran beneath the towers. Standing and staring at the structure was a stark reminder of the scale of the buildings – and the attacks.

But one let down in trying to remember those killed, seems to be the absence of an accounting for why it happened: What were the motivations of those 19 hijackers and those who supported their cause?

It may be a politically fraught question for Americans, but taking a dodge on the motivations lets down the memories of those killed.

Omitted – almost on purpose – was any comprehensive accounting for the motives behind the attacks, apart from a small footnote on the end where they are neutrally identified.

A decade and a half on, it is perhaps still too painful to remember not just the tragedy but the factors that led the perpetrators to commit such atrocious acts.

The museum is more a place to honor and remember the victims, not to remember the extremists. This is reflected in a request by the museum asking visitors not to exhibit inappropriate behavior.

A touch screen monitor at the memorial site displays the name of a victim.

“Given the unique nature of the site, proper decorum, personal behavior, and conduct are required from all visitors at all times in order to provide the entire visiting public with respect and an equal opportunity to have an enriching and meaningful experience,” part of the information brochure read. “Visitors are not permitted to engage in expressive activity that has the effect, intent, or propensity to draw a crowd.”

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is located at 180 Greenwich Street, nearby the southeast of Freedom Tower in Manhattan, New York City. Tickets for adults are USD$24. More information can be found on the website.

Ed. note: Memorial spokeswoman Olivia Egger contacted Khaosod English to say a portion of the museum’s historical exhibition “focuses on the events leading up to 9/11, exploring the Rise of al-Qaeda and providing historical context for the attacks, including the motivations and ideology of the perpetrators.” She also indicated the number of first responders killed that day was 441, not 412.

Interior of the nearby World Trade Center transportation hub which opened in 2016, 15 years after an important transportation nexus was destroyed in the attack.
Interior of the nearby World Trade Center transportation hub which opened in 2016, 15 years after an important transportation nexus was destroyed in the attack.