A museum of delicate, surreal and emotional memories connects visitors to the day that changed America, and the world forever. I revisit New York for the first time since the unimaginable tragedy, and pay a respectful visit to the new 9/11 Museum at the site.
A cold blast of wind is my most prominent memory of climbing the escalator from the top floor of the original World Trade Center, to the rooftop observation deck, on a chilly October morning in 2000. The journey to the top had seemed more like taking off in a jet – I remember my ears popping and the floor indicator blinking through the level numbers at an incomprehensible rate. I certainly remember that security was prominent even back then, after passing security checkpoints and back scanners at this point. As far as I was concerned, stood at the top, the tower’s twin standing proud a stone’s throw away, these buildings were infinite symbols of integrity, prowess and ingenuity. Time would of course tell a different and very disturbing story.
Emerging from the metro station, I notice that almost mechanically, people’s heads turn upwards to the right as they near the top of the steps to street level. As I reach the top, my first view of the new Freedom tower has me follow suit. Even on this foggy winter day, the new tower is beautiful, proud and elegant. The observation deck of the new tower isn’t yet open, so I head towards the site of the original towers.
I feel a mixture of sadness and disbelief as the square waterfall foundations of the original towers come into view in the Memorial Garden. From this moment, I know that this experience is going to not evoke memories of the day, but also bring a sense of realism to an event that despite happening over 13 years ago, right now may as well have been yesterday. To see the footprints of the original towers, even after all this time, adds another dimension to the memories of news reports and videos from the day, and repeated over and over again ever since.
‘Happy Holidays’ says the smiling employee as she pulls back the cordon to allow us into the Museum, sign of the New Yorker spirit, and setting the tone of the visit. Perhaps myself and others entering aren’t quite sure how to feel or act about this, however as this lady demonstrates, this is both a site of mourning and a site of triumph – of resilience of good over evil. Happy Holidays to her too.
As expected the first area is a large airport style security checkpoint. Nobody around is impatient or impended by this as they pass through.
I head upstairs first to the auditorium. A 15 minute film is shown which as well as showing the emotional impact of the day and the ubiquitous scenes of the aircraft striking the towers, provides new angles and viewpoints that may not have been heard before. Something that sticks with me is George Bush’s statement, or admittance that he had not planned to be thrust into the role of a wartime president. He didn’t see it coming.
Heading down the steps to a central area, I pass the first of the large burnt-orange twisted steel supports from the towers. This first experience of seeing such a tangible, real object from this day of tragedy urges me to stop for a moment to observe it.
Following the route downstairs, large displays exhibiting photographs of people’s reactions at the time capture the raw emotion and utter disbelief that America was under attack. I pass a large display that shows the routes of the ill-fated passenger jets.
The path curves around until reaching a huge cavernous area – the foundations of the original towers. I can smell the concrete as I witness the vast imposing walls. A sarcophagus of remembrance, pain and sanctity, this is ground zero, forever preserved and never forgotten.
The scarred, battered surface of the ‘escape stairs’ tells a terrifying story, but also one of at least a little hope. These stairs aided the escape and ultimately saved the lives of some of those caught in the day’s misery.
Twisted steel and broken rivets adorn the surviving piece of the TV antenna from the top of the north tower. I am dumbfounded that this piece could survive such violent destruction, a feeling that resonates with the rest of the collection.
Nearby, the wreck of the ladder 3 fire truck stands testament to the incredible forces of the day. One end of it is completely bent reshaped by the tremendous forces of the time. In the same space, concrete blocks and other remnants speak of the atrocity and make it real.
The last remaining support column, adorned with photographs, possessions and flowers provides a powerful metaphor for America’s determination and collective feeling in the aftermath.
I have time to visit one last section, designed to recreate the events of the day. Photos and videos are not allowed in this area, and this speak for itself after the delicate and sensitive nature of the exhibits becomes clear.
The slowly moving crowd is stunned to slice around me. Reminiscent of the sensory bombardment of the day, the experience begins with a plethora of newspaper cuttings, radio broadcasts and TV clips right from the day, the minute, and the second the events unfolded. Accompanied by the artefacts around, this has quite a powerful effect.
Some of the items that survived are staggering – even a page from an inflight magazine lays charred in its glass case. Of course the whole exhibit is to reflect on the event itself, including the 1993 bombings, not just the twin towers, and remnants of the planes and of the Pentagon tragedy are also displayed. A haunting piece of the plane and a seatbelt survive from the impact.
Perhaps most haunting of all is a fragment of the memorial of the 1993 WTC bombing – a fragment of a memorial of another disaster inside another memorial.
Despite this immense sense of loss, the artefacts of tribute, of triumph, of endurance and of unity shine and rise respectfully above these moments of terror like the Freedom tower – never forgetting and forever changing the way we think, live and feel. The museum is the bridging point between what we know, what we remember and what we feel to the real world remnants of the day, and quite an emotional journey it is.