Remembering the unforgettable
NYC’s 9/11 museum and memorial: brutal but brilliant
Some things are unavoidable; in New York 9/11 is one of them, understandably. On our last full day in the city we went to the erstwhile Ground Zero to pay quiet respect and see what the city is making of its legacy. I won’t go on at length here because words, as much as I love them and as powerful as they can be, struggle to do justice to that day’s events.
What I will say is that the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum is the most affecting storytelling place I have ever visited apart from Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s HQ of horror.
I arrived in downtown Manhattan fearing that such a place badly done could reek of potential Disneyfication or, worse, kneejerk nationalism. It is to New York’s credit that the memorial is neither and the museum is a calmly considered, beautifully constructed memento mori.
The former footprints of the Twin Towers each host a quietly dignified recessed pool into which water endlessly drains: as close to the reverse of a triumphalist fountain as physics will allow. Michael Arad’s design is impressive without being imperious, sad without recourse to melodrama. Arad wisely ignored Daniel Libeskind’s requirement that the memorial buildings overhang the footprints; instead, contemplating the literal enormity of what once happened here, we bend our necks solemnly down and only occasionally look up into the empty sky.
The museum itself doesn’t start well, with a pavilion best described as Libeskind-lite: a jagged glass structure that architects Snøhetta almost insultingly designed to resemble a partially collapsed building. But then an elevator takes you down, past the final two steel tridents evacuated from Ground Zero, into a beautifully pitched underground space: from here on in, the museum is at the service of the story rather than those who would tell it, and is all the better for that.
Descending a sloped walkway into semi-darkness, the museum funnels you past stark evidence of destruction. Above you loom huge twisted shards of steel. Peeking over the parapet, you see more exhibits to come, further into your descent. Each is well-chosen, from the algorithmic display of 9/11 mentions in the media since that day to the literally totemic trident around which the utterly heroic emergency services grieved their lost ones.
Reaching the lowest level of the museum, it becomes impossible to ignore the huge walls delineating the underground space. One forms part of the slurry wall built to hold back the Hudson before the Towers went up; the design of the World Trade Center is itself a fascinating story which is well told here. When another, newer wall suddenly shoots off at a right-angle, it becomes evident that these are the outsides of Arad’s recessed pools, as well as a dark shadow of the Towers.
Then come the exhibitions, in which photography is quite correctly banned. Nearly 50 years of Twin Tower-referencing New Yorker covers give an idea of how iconic and intrinsic the towers were to the city’s image, but they do not give an impression of the human story that is about to sock you again. A display of photographs showing each (known) victim is difficult enough; then you enter another room. The story of 9/11 is told calmly, in full detail, from daytime hosts interrupting cosy sofa chats through rising awareness and horror to those images which have become almost shorthand yet can still pack a shocking punch in context. I’m not ashamed to say I wept when I saw the transcript of one victim calling his wife from a hijacked plane to tell her how much he loved her. Others were moved to tears by different exhibits, each a story of an individual’s suffering or escape. The aftermath is discussed with commendable equanimity, and the visitor finally emerges from the dark via an upward escalator playing a subdued version of Amazing Grace — a little exhausted, a lot saddened, but somehow a wiser person than the one who went in.
Originally published on Facebook, 24 Aug 2017.