National September 11 Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 133 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A special exhibition of New Yorker covers that featured the Twin Towers both before and after Sept. 11. My favorite of all is probably this one from 2003, showing New York’s iconic buildings twinned.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Particularly timely exhibition now that Condé Nast’s headquarters are in One World Trade Center.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum bills itself as a single, unified whole.  And indeed, the museum is integrally part of the plaza, a cavernous underground space that extends all around– and under– the footprints of the World Trade Center towers.  However, for my purposes I’m thinking about them separately.  

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The WTC Memorial

The September 11 Memorial, with its somber square fountains and all the names, is one thing:  well worth a visit even as the Trade Center has gone from being a giant hole in the ground to being a thriving center for commerce and commuting once again.

The September 11 Museum I don’t recommend so heartily.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Eerie architecture evokes a knocked over tower

First off, I find the exterior offputting.  With its horizontal lines and elongated, slanting rectangle, it looks like a tower knocked on its side.  A little too on-the-nose for my taste.

Second, I got off on the wrong foot walking in the door.  The guys manning the metal detectors and x-rays (it’s like getting on an airplane to get in that place) were far too enamored of their power.  They made me take off my belt.  To get into a museum.  With no one behind me waiting.  And they were mean about it. If I hadn’t had to go to review the place, I would’ve just walked out.

Once you pass the gatekeepers, if you do, the September 11 Museum takes you down, down, down, a long escalator drops you below plaza level, and a winding path brings you steadily lower still, with periodic vistas of even lower spaces to come.  It’s appropriately Dantean.  “Abandon every hope…” and all that.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Vast spaces, girder, and oral history benches

The Memory of Time

Indeed, I suspect the Dante feeling is intentional, or at least something the museum’s architects had subconsciously in their minds.  One wall of the museum hosts a giant mosaic evoking the blue of the sky over New York on September 11, and a quotation from Virgil: 

No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

I mean, who quotes Virgil anymore?  But Virgil was Dante’s guide to the underworldand so he’s equally appropriate as a guide on our journey through this underworld and New York’s most hellish day.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Much like (and possibly patterned after) the nearby Museum of Jewish Heritage, the path through the September 11 Museum follows a strict chronological order.  Timelines of the day run along the walls, aligning each spatial location with a particular moment, minute-by-minute, on the fateful day.

It recounts the events in Washington and Pennsylvania as well as New York, and deploys audio recordings, video, artifacts, and text to tell its story.  

A few things — most notably the photos of people leaping/falling from the doomed towers — are discreetly cordoned off in spaces of their own, horrible even in the context of the horror of September 11.

Throughout the museum, when a wall text names someone who died during the September 11 attacks, they get a little leaf-shaped symbol next to their name.  Which the museum explains, and I get that symbols are tricky things.  But perhaps another shape would be clearer.  I kept thinking they are environmentally friendly.

The September 11 Museum’s remit very much includes the blame for who did this; a lengthy section on Al-Qaeda speaks to the rise of radical Islam.  And it encompasses vengeance, too; a case holds artifacts (a flak jacket, photos from a CIA operative) related to killing Osama bin-Laden.  I don’t think I have a problem with that as such; it’s just a small piece of the museum’s lofty caverns.  But I do find that even a small dollop of wrath can flavor an awful lot of mourning.

More to See in the Underworld

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Once you’ve completed the chronological story, you might think you’re done. But wait, there’s more!  There are whole wings of the September 11 Museum left to see, including:

  • A narrow hall displaying things made inspired by the tragedy of September Eleventh.  To wit: a custom 1979 Honda motorcycle.
  • A huge space, literally under one of the fountain footprints, that hosts photos of all the victims, and touch-screen tables let you zoom in on individuals, giving video, audio, and photos that recount something of their lives.
  • Art spaces.  During my visit, one held the New Yorker exhibition, the other showed photos by Stephane Sednaoui, who volunteered at the site in the days immediately after 9/11. His pictures moved me far more than the ones at the Ground Zero Museum Workshop.
  • The museum also has a theater, offering an immersive retelling of the day’s horrific events.  I skipped it, but lots of people were waiting patiently on line. 
  • Oral history benches, where you can sit for a spell and listen to recordings by survivors, families, first responders, and others.
  • More cheerily, there’s also a section recounting the history and building of the World Trade Center, and the role it played in pop culture.  It includes an English-language movie poster from “Godzilla versus Megalon,” from 1976, which didn’t take place in NYC, but still shows the titular kaiju posturing dangerously atop 1 and 2 WTC.

National September 11 Museum

Some of the September 11 Museum’s vast spaces show bigger artifacts from 9/11, too.  Massive girders bent like Richard Serra sculptures; they’d be beautiful out of their context. A  fire truck that looks like Godzilla (speaking of) took a bite out of the back of it.

National September 11 Museum

Eventually, you’ll have seen everything you can see, or everything you can bear to see.  And then, like Dante at his journey’s end, you locate the escalator up, up, up, until you, too, at last “emerge to see–once more — the stars.” (Inferno, Canto XXXIV, Allan Mandelbaum translation.)

National September 11 Museum
Into the light once more

Sadness, Wrath, Exhaustion

Everyone who visits New York should go to the September 11 Memorial.  But in the end I’m less sure the National September 11 Museum is a must-visit.  It does its job.  If you want to learn what happened that day in every gory detail, it’s the place to go.

As a feat of architecture, it’s incredibly impressive.  But maybe it’s too impressive?  Too big, for sure. On the escalator heading out I wasn’t sure if this place wanted me to feel sad or angry or impressed or just exhausted.  I felt in a better, less confused (and definitely less tired) state after visiting the nearby 9/11 Tribute Museum.  I might recommend that over this if you want to understand 9/11 and its aftermath.

National September 11 Museum

For Reference:

Address 180 Greenwich Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $24 (tours cost extra)
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