Why I Had to Visit the 9/11 Museum (Guest Post)
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My dad, Buddy, AKA “Grandpa Points” has a love for travel as fierce as mine, yet our travel patterns are distinctly different. He and my mom are now in their mid-60’s, are (mostly) retired, and are ticking off “bucket list” destinations quicker than they ever thought possible thanks to miles, points, and travel deals. They have an intense love of this country, of its National Parks and treasures, and have no problem with a clean budget hotel room and an economy seat as long as it gets them where they want to be. A photographer by trade, his adventures are usually captured not just in his mind, but in his camera. He shares his thoughts and travels here from time to time, and I’m excited to share another one of their adventures.
It was a very cold, wet and mono-chromatically gray day as we made our way toward the 9/11 Museum on a recent visit to New York City. My thoughts were racing back to the events and to the victims of that tragic day as we walked in the proverbial shadow of the new One World Trade Center. I say proverbial because there were no shadows that day other than the ones that are now always there. The shadows of lives cut short, the shadows of dreams unfulfilled, the shadows of tomorrows not seen and the shadows of a changed American landscape. I silently wondered if the weather had been so similarly hostile on that fateful day 13 years ago if the hijackings might have failed, if the flights might have been grounded or delayed, if history might have been altered.
I was affected by 9/11. Not specifically, not directly, not personally. I was not on that dramatic stage but rather my seat was far back in the balcony. I was a distant witness. A spellbound, stunned, shocked and sympathetic observer frozen to the images and reports that unfolded that September morning. I am a news junkie with TVs in virtually every room. I worked from a home office and was at the breakfast table when the first bulletin came in that a plane had hit one of the towers. As the story first broke, no one could have foreseen or imagined the gravity of the situation or the catastrophic disaster that the clock was ticking toward. Soon, the impossible, the incomprehensible happened right before our eyes and a heavenly beautiful day quickly turned into America’s hell.
For hours, for days, I lived in a state of sensory overload practically camping out in front of the TV. I could not absorb or emotionally quantify the events and the historical impact fast enough. I was in a world of questions. Who, what, where, when, why? In the years since, some of the answers have come into view, but my curiosity, my need to understand, my need to feel and grasp the scope and depth of this human experience remained unsatisfied. I am a notoriously visual person, and I needed to move from the balcony to the front row so I could better comprehend our nation’s ultimate private and public disaster. I waited anxiously for the opening of the 9/11 Museum to give me that opportunity.
The Museum opened in May of 2014 and has been visited by hundreds of thousands in its first eight months. Tickets are available through the 9/11 Museum website and are on a timed entry basis. Ticket prices range from $15 – $24 and can be purchased three months in advance. Tickets are free for children 6 and under, active duty military, 9/11 family and recovery workers. The museum offers free entry on Tuesday evenings and will become a part of the New York CityPASS program in March 2015.
There is a small cafe on the ground level, but its offerings are limited and sort of odd. There is also a souvenir shop that has generated a degree of controversy as to whether it’s commercial aspect is appropriate for this venue. Cameras are allowed, but most exhibits request photos not be taken. We went the day before Thanksgiving, and the number attending was quite high. Our entry was smooth and orderly even with the standard airport type security measures and the large crowd.
I readily admit that I am not qualified to know of architectural nuance, objective and symbolism so my views are from a personal, non-professional perspective. My initial impression was that there was an incredible amount of open and empty space with an occasional large iconic artifact placed strategically to refocus your attention to the purpose of your visit. The entrance level is quite bright and airy but the light level gradually decreases as you progress down some 70 feet to the actual bedrock of the towers and to the primary exhibition spaces. The general mood and atmosphere reflects this darker and increasingly more somber and solemn environment. It is not like the shhh quietness of a library, but there exists a subdued, reverent and respectful noise level that allows for personal thoughts and individual reflection.
The museum is essentially presented in three sections. The Memorial Section is dedicated to those whose lives were lost as a result of that day. It is seen and experienced just after passing the “survivor staircase” that provided many with a path of escape. The memorial has photos of the almost 3,000 that perished with an interactive ability to learn more and see more of each one’s individual life. To me, this is the “soul’ of the museum. This is where each victim becomes more than 1 of 3,000. They become one of one.
Further on into the museum is one of the mangled fire trucks that transported heroic first responders to that fateful alarm. Most visitors seem to stop here and pause.
Adjacent to the truck are some glass doors that quietly and unceremoniously mark the entrance to the Historical Exhibition. There is a sign that simply says SEPTEMBER, 11, 2001, but it is a mostly understated portal to some ten thousand often painful physical memories, remnants and artifacts.
This is where the canvas of that day is painted. Sometimes with a brush so fine that the details are hauntingly specific, sometimes with a brush broad of scope to capture the outline and sometimes with a brush with no bristles to remind us of the absence. The painting will never be finished and cannot be completed. Nothing came out of that day intact, unscathed and unchanged and so there is no way to recapture the whole. Here are the bits and pieces, the fragments and shards , the fabrics and effects of the disaster that occurred. Here also is the story of the human response to a challenge none had ever imagined. This is where the “heart” of the Museum is. This is where my heart needed to be.
In contrast to the spacious feel of the rest of the museum, this exhibit area was intense and grabbed your complete attention. This is where the Kleenex will most often be reached for. There is too much to see in one visit, too much to detail in this brief report. While everyone will see and be affected by different things, some that impacted me were the scattered airplane parts, a scribbled note from the 83rd floor, a crushed fireman’s helmet, the ” I hear you, the rest of the world hears you…” bullhorn, the steel cross, a melted and burnt EMS vehicle and a super slow motion video of the plane slicing into the 2nd tower like an arrow into an apple. There was also the very touching, very loving, calm and final message left by one of the tower’s victims on a home phone recorder. And there was the recounting of a young woman forced to the drafty ledge, who prior to jumping, was seen fighting to keep her skirt down as a final human demonstration of modesty, civility and decency.
I walked through this collection with a lump in my throat and a tear on my cheek. But also with sincere admiration and respect for the courage and bravery so many displayed in those hours of peril.
Upon exiting the Historical Exhibition, you find yourself in the Foundation Hall, the third main component of the museum. This cavernous area was the very foundation for one of the towers. Here, impact steel lies twisted like a pretzel and the last column removed from the debris pile stands resolute. Here also is the uniform shirt of the Navy Seal who ended the search for Bin Laden.
9/11 inherently carries with it such personal emotions that I cannot suggest that it’s museum can be recommended for all. Each visitor that does go, will require varying amounts of time to individually absorb, assimilate and process everything that will have been seen, heard and felt. In a perfect world, I would suggest attending on days and times that are traditionally the lowest traffic periods so your experience can be as personal and as meaningful as possible.
The 9/11 Museum took years to come to fruition because of the very nature of its history and contents. Thousands of separate lives, thousands of individual stories reside here. Each one as important as the next. To come to a consensus on the proper way to honor and remember the individuals in the context of the whole was an almost impossible task. The Museum needed to be a memorial, a shrine, a time capsule, a historical reference, a final resting place, a tribute, a tomb, an inspiration and a solemn reminder.
And, it is.
God Bless America.
While this post is from my dad’s point of view, I wanted to add a note about bringing children to the 9/11 Museum. We brought my five-year-old daughter mostly because there was no other way to all go to the museum on this trip. It went fine overall, but I do not think that bringing young kids is the ideal way to experience this exhibit. We had to split up and take turns seeing things while others sat with her as some of the images are just too graphic (in my view) to show to kids not yet ready to process that information.
In a perfect world, I do not recommend bringing young kids to the 9/11 Museum until you think they are totally ready to understand the full nature of what happened that day. There are some questions and conversations that will be unavoidable because of some of the things they will see and hear. Those are important conversations to have, but if you try to have them too young they may do more harm than good, in my view. If you need to go with your young children, you can do as we did and take turns going into some of the more graphic parts of the museum without the little ones, but just be ready for that tag-team experience and bring something to keep the kids occupied while they wait with you on the benches around the museum.
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