Why the 9/11 Museum Failed

by Christine Sisto
The National September 11 Memorial Museum should have kept the memorial and skipped the museum.

The National September 11 Memorial Museum is located just off the footprints of the original Twin Towers, which have been turned into a beautiful, simple, and intensely emotional experience. The memorial consists of two giant waterfalls that outline the structure of the towers. The water drops from street level and vanishes into the holes left by what were once the tallest buildings in New York. You can’t see the bottom. The marble railing surrounding the waterfalls is engraved with names of the victims of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

On the memorial grounds stands a glass building​, into which tourists are encouraged to look. Inside are two original steel beams from one of the towers, embedded in the ground. Those steel beams radiate a stark reminder that more than 2,700 people were murdered on that spot, on a single late-summer morning, by Muslim terrorists from Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

Beneath that glass box is the 9/11 Memorial Museum itself, which has become a hot potato for pundits and politicians since it opened last week

It may not have been possible, under any circumstances, to build a museum Americans would consider sufficiently respectful to the victims and their families. In the event, critics have singled out the museum’s gift shop as an insult to the memories of the dead. Brooklyn state senator Marty Golden has said, “I honestly don’t think it’s appropriate—selling scarves to commercialize the deaths of 3,000 people.”

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, has called some of the items for sale, such as the Pandora charm bracelets, “insensitive.” And Representative Michael Grimm, who was a 9/11 first responder and lost a loved one in the tragedy, stated that he doesn’t care for the gift shop “selling trinkets,” adding that the museum should be concerned with “preserving the dignity” of the victims.

I visited the museum this past Friday to see if all of the anger was deserved. After passing through the real legacy of 9/11, a heavy security screening, I came to the two beams, but as security guards hustled me along and tourists idled at the top of the escalators, they didn’t have the same effect they’d had when I had viewed them in the past. They just looked like beams. The museum, built into the foundation of the original World Trade Center, is architecturally beautiful. The huge ceilings and dark wood floors give it a relaxed yet somber feel. The space almost forces the visitor to be contemplative, with readings of victims’ names running throughout the main atrium and plenty of benches on which to rest.

The two most important rooms are in the heart of the museum. The first is completely dedicated to the victims’ lives. Their pictures cover the four walls from top to bottom and tablets along the walls allow visitors to look up names and short bios. At the center of this room is a smaller room lined with benches and a transparent glass floor that allows the visitor to see the original ground beneath. The room is kept dark and the names of the victims are read aloud one by one and projected onto the wall, along with pictures and a few sentences about the victim. I almost tripped over two bored-looking tween girls sprawled on the floor, huddled around an electric socket to charge their iPhones while the images of the dead towered over them.

The second room is an extended timeline of September 11. A sign hangs outside of the room warning that the exhibit may be disturbing to some visitors. The walls are covered by dozens of projections of the planes crashing into the towers and the towers falling. As BuzzFeed’s Steve Kandell, whose sister perished on September 11th, said in a recent article:

I can feel the sweat that went into making this not seem tacky, of wanting to show respect, but also wanting to show every last bit of carnage and visceral whomp to justify the $24 price of admission — vulgarity of the noblest intentions.

I felt the same way as I walked through this exhibit. Every terrible detail of that day is represented. There are handsets that visitors can listen to of answering-machine messages that passengers of Flight 93 left for loved ones. There is video surveillance footage of the hijackers going through security. There are pictures of people jumping from the buildings as they burned. A teenage boy, with a great, dramatic sigh of boredom, lay down on a bench across from the pictures of the people leaping from the burning buildings.

As Kandell says, the exhibit is packed with stuff, much of it destroyed and covered in dust. It almost seems like one great storage space for 9/11 remnants. The wreckage is awful, but it is still historically significant and has to be kept somewhere.

Among the items stored on the premises, though not open to tourists, are unidentifiable remains of 9/11 dead, human residue for which no other resting place has been found. This puts the 9/11 museum into a category occupied by such monuments as the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, and it makes similar demands on the conscience: The place is both a mass-murder site and a graveyard. Is there any appropriate way to respond to it?

And then I arrived at the gift shop. While mulling over whether to buy the infamous cheese plate, I considered the other items for sale. Jewelry, 9/11 Memorial Museum sweatshirts, FDNY T-shirts, rubber “Never Forget” bracelets, stuffed animals of police dogs, and a lot of books about first responders, police dogs, and firefighters. None of it felt crass, precisely, until it crossed my mind that there were human remains in this building. I left without buying anything.

The museum’s PR department has so far failed at the job of convincing New Yorkers of the museum’s benefits. The museum received further criticism last Wednesday when donors, including Condé Nast executives and former mayor Michael Bloomberg, held a VIP cocktail hour near the remains repository. The repository can be accessed only by the victims’ families. However, victims’ families who arrived for the museum opening were turned away at the door during the cocktail party, leading a woman to tweet that the swells were “enjoy[ing] dinner & drinks on top of my [brother's] grave last night.”

Museum spokesman Michael Frazier seemed to take great pains to answer my questions in as few words as possible. For example, when I asked how the museum, which is estimated to cost $60 million per year to operate, was to be funded, his entire response was: “The memorial and museum does not receive city, state, or federal funding.”

I left the museum asking if it was doing its job of effectively communicating the gravity of September 11, 2001, to future generations and non-New Yorkers. Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “no.” The problem isn’t in the execution but in the very concept of the museum. Although the museum gift shop should probably be located across the street, the 9/11 Memorial Museum does a pretty good job of honoring and respecting the victims. The exhibits are informative: One section, describing the rise and mindset of al-Qaeda, strikes the perfect balance between education and continued vigilance. But September 11 was, and still is, a shared tragedy, a shared sadness. A broken elevator motor does not convey that.

The kids and tourists who looked bored may have had reasons to feel that way. After all, the museum is just a bunch of broken eyeglasses and dust-covered bicycles. The 9/11 attacks were about more than broken trinkets. New Yorkers always say that everyone knows someone who lost a loved one on 9/11. The memorial, the giant holes in the ground, reflect the loss that all New Yorkers felt. They are the holes in our hearts for those who died, the holes in our sense of security, the holes left in the skyline with the disappearance of such massive edifices. The 9/11 Memorial was enough. There was no need to tack a museum onto it.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review.