A museum for everyone

From the architecture and exhibition design to the content and visitor experience, every aspect of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York had to be meticulously planned. Museum director Alice Greenwald talks Alice Davis through the process

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Never before has a museum been built to tell the story of an event that was witnessed by a third of the world’s population. On September 11 2001, people across the globe stopped whatever they were doing and watched the attacks unfold, live, on television. The 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City, New York, opened in May 2014 to try to tell that story. It has already had close to 2 million visitors.

The unimaginable scale, the confusion, the horrifying images of that day and the tragedy of the lives that were lost – it’s incised into the minds of those who watched from afar.

“All of us carry a story of 9/11 with us,” says museum director Alice Greenwald. “The premise of the museum is to tell history through the vantage point of those who experienced it, which means it’s inclusive of those nearly 2 billion people.”

For those in Lower Manhattan or New York, Washington or Shanksville and for those who survived, knew victims or responded to the emergencies, 11 September is not history, but a part of their lives, and a ‘museum’ must seem misplaced in time. “It was also important to hear from those who lived that experience, who evacuated the buildings and survived, the first responders, and those who lost their lives,” Greenwald says.

It’s hard to imagine a more challenging project than conceptualising and realising the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Every aspect and every detail had to be considered with thought, assessed from every angle and meticulously judged. As Greenwald describes the museum, you can see that this is true for every single decision that was made.

Understanding the relationship between the Memorial Plaza and the museum is important to the visitor experience. Two inverse fountains now fill the footprints of the Twin Towers, set in a public park scattered with trees, surrounded by skyscrapers. Standing there, visitors wouldn’t necessarily know there’s a museum beneath their feet. It’s marked only by a glass pavilion, some way away between the two pools of water. The park is a place of contemplation, and there are no signs of the devastation that happened there, save the names of the victims inscribed around the bronze edges of the pools.

“The Memorial Plaza is about the absence of verticality and what’s no longer there,” says Greenwald. “The plaza was always intended to be a horizontal environment. It’s about the absence of the buildings, the absence of the people we lost. It’s about reflecting absence, which was the name given to the design by its architects, Michael Arad and Peter Walker.”

The museum itself is in the very foundations of the North Tower and South Tower of the World Trade Center complex, seven storeys, or 21m (70 ft), below ground. “It’s essentially built in the cavity of the foundations,” says Greenwald. “As well as being a historical museum and memorial institution, it’s also an archaeological environment with in situ remnants of the World Trade Center still visible.”

For Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta who designed the pavilion – the glass atrium which forms the entrance and foyer of the museum – a balance had to be struck between the absence represented by the horizontal plane of the Memorial Plaza and the descent into the museum space far below – the space which, Greenwald says, is about “reflecting presence.”

“The museum is about what remains, whether it’s the remnants of the buildings or the artefacts that represent those lives or the material that tells the story of the day.”

The Snøhetta architects needed to build a connection between the two contexts. Their glass structure rises from the ground to create a deep atrium inside, filled with light by day, and uplit by night. Inside the atrium, where the entrance hall gives way to a staircase down to the exhibition, are two of the 24m (80ft) steel tridents, which were once part of the structure of the North Tower.

“We set out by saying that our intention was to reflect the present, whereas the two waterfalls going into the footprints of the two towers reflect the past,” says Snøhetta’s Kjetil Traedal Thorsen. “In that sense it would be a more dynamic building, creating an immediate connection between the public and what was happening on the site.” [For more on the process of designing the pavilion, see our interview with Thorsen on p68]

“The pavilion suggests presence without being overly vertical, though it gives you verticality in the tridents,” says Greenwald. “Inside the pavilion, you look at these tridents and you look through the window and not only do you see both of the pools, where the Twin Towers stood, but you also see the new One World Trade Center, rising 1,776ft [541m] into the sky. You immediately get the proportions of what was here. It was critical in the design that when you entered the pavilion you were still within the memorial context: you were not separate from it; there was a continuity.”

Heading down the first flight of stairs, the visitor enters the main museum space, which was designed by New York architecture firm Davis Brody Bond. The descent features different levels leading down to the Foundation Hall, passing the Survivors’ Stairs which enabled hundreds of people to escape the burning towers. In many ways, the museum is not a building, but an expansive interior space, punctuated with original pieces of engineering – now historical assets – such as the slurry wall, twisted pieces of steel and the box columns that have been excavated to reveal the outline of the North Tower footprint.

“Given a fixed set of existing geometries at the site, we were faced with the challenge of translating them into a series of coherent spaces that are punctuated by surface, texture and volume,” says Davis Brody Bond.

“We chose as the space’s main narrative element a gently descending procession (dubbed ‘the ribbon’) that guides visitors from the plaza to the bedrock level where the cut columns of the World Trade Center towers are revealed. The ‘ribbon’ evokes the ramp used to remove debris from the site in the aftermath of the attacks. It also offers multiple views of the slurry wall, the original retaining wall that was built to withstand the lateral forces of landfill and river, and which survived the collapse of the towers.

“At the end of the ribbon, the descent continues down along the Vesey Street Stair (‘Survivors’ Stairs’), which were used by hundreds to escape to safety on 9/11. It ultimately leads to two exhibition spaces and Foundation Hall, the Museum’s culminating space whose sheer scale conveys a sense of the enormity of the site and reinforces awareness of the absence of what once was there.”

Greenwald says: “The architects created a ramped descent with vistas that tell you how enormous the space is. Scale was always the story of the World Trade Center – the scale of what was here, of the events that took place, the scale of the potential for recovery and redevelopment. All of that is conveyed in the architecture. It’s extraordinary to take in the authenticity of the site, the enormity of the space and begin to contemplate the narrative of the museum exhibit. Davis Brody Bond designed what I think is one of the great built environments in New York, if not in the world.”

Inside the museum, Greenwald and the design teams decided at an early stage to create a segregated area where visitors opted in. The space meant the most difficult artefacts wouldn’t be encountered unless a visitor chose to do so. It became the historical exhibit, enclosed in the North Tower. The South Tower houses the memorial exhibition. Tom Hennes and his studio Thinc Design conceptualised about 80 per cent of the exhibition, with the help of media and technology partner Local Projects. Layman Design took charge of the historical exhibit.

For Hennes, the most important consideration when designing the exhibition was a respect for the trauma engendered by the attacks, and finding a way to present the story without forcing visitors to relive that trauma.

“Trauma plays a central role at the personal and the social scale,” Hennes says. “That’s most significant for the people who were directly involved, but the ripples of trauma travelled through society. Our world view was disrupted on that day.”

The designers worked closely with advisers, including historians and psychologists, to create a layout that permits each visitor to determine their own route. As long as they are informed about what’s coming next, visitors are able to “regulate the intensity” of their museum experience. There is no definitive route through the exhibition, so visitors have the freedom to choose their journey. “Visitors understand they’re in a museum, and not in 9/11,” Hennes adds. “Here and now is a museum on the site of one of its attacks, not a re-immersion in 9/11.”

In the same way the visitor experience was devised to avoid being unduly traumatic, every artefact had to be tested by the same principles before it was deemed suitable for display.

One unique challenge lay in the fact that so much of the material was audio media, such as cockpit recordings, voicemails and radio transmissions. “The timbre of the human voice has an immediacy and a power that is very real,” says Greenwald. “Our advisors cautioned early on that we needed to be extremely prudent in our selection of audio materials.”

Hennes gives an example, describing how he had trawled through video of the towers falling countless times, but on one occasion listened with the volume on and heard the screams of a female voice, from out of shot. “I found that more difficult than just about any of the material I have seen because it took me to that raw, unprocessed, traumatic, emotional experiencing of terror and disbelief of the moment,” he says. Imagining a museum that has this type of subject matter thus demands a certain sense of responsibility from the project team. “In some ways, that’s what we have to shield people from, unless they really want to go there, because that is trauma, it is felt experience that may not even be fully understood.”

Prudence and discretion was applied by the curators and designers across every type of artefact, Greenwald says. “When do you cross the line between documentation and exploitation? We debated endlessly that question and we worked very hard not to cross that line.”

A case in point was the telling of the story of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all on board. Very little survived the impact that could document the attack, but almost 40 phone calls were made by crew and passengers during the onboard siege. “We made choices to include certain voicemail messages that are heartwrenching, but we felt they passed the test for us of being appropriate in a museum setting,” says Greenwald. “There were recorded experiences aboard that plane that we chose not to include, and that was a discretionary decision based on what we felt was a question of ethics and appropriateness.”

As Hennes says, this curatorial vigilance is necessary to prevent throwing visitors into that state of raw trauma. He explains what happens in the brain: “Trauma is a splitting between what we feel and see, which is recorded in one part of the brain; and the story we tell about it and the sequence we give it, which is recorded in another part of the brain. The feeling of trauma brings those two aspects of memory together into something coherent, so to expose people to that unprocessed felt experience is to invite a kind of shock reaction and it is traumatic.”

“We recognised that coming to the site of one of the attacks would be a kind of pilgrimage for many people,” he says. “We wanted to create a journey through this horrible event that would be bearable. With most museums the central design challenge is bringing the materials to life, but in this museum the material is all too present and all too alive for most people. The central problem is making it bearable to witness it.”

A salient point is that the 9/11 Memorial Museum has managed to reflect too the resilience of the city, the strength of the spirit that survived in the people who were affected the most. It seems vital to the museum that in places it has this energy within it, and that it is closely related to the words of the people who did not die that day.

There are listening alcoves in the history exhibit where visitors can hear recordings made by people who escaped the Twin Towers or the Pentagon and rescuers. “There is something enormously powerful in hearing their experiences spoken in their own words, not filtered through the museum’s curatorial voice,” says Greenwald.

In the memorial exhibit too, first-person recordings by relatives and friends of victims strike a similar chord. “What you find is that the stories they tell are the same stories that all families tell; stories that celebrate lives and remember people for the best of who they were,” she says. “The stories are not about how they died but about how they lived.”

It’s debatable whether the commemorative nature of parts of the museum corresponds to the typical definitions of what a museum is and should be. Hennes refers to an article in The New Yorker published in July last year, that questioned the case for the museum, saying “nothing is really taught ... [the designers] are in constant peril from the enormous American readiness to be mortally offended by some small misstep of word or tone. They can be felt navigating the requirements of interested parties at every turn.”

Perhaps it’s because this is an event that belongs to everybody – as Greenwald said, everyone has his own 9/11 story – so wasn’t it right to build a museum that could be something to everybody? The museum and design teams believe the museum is organic; it will evolve and grow as the years pass, as fresh audiences come, as the event moves out of memory and more into history.

“To say a memorial museum is a contradiction in terms is missing the fundamental point about the potential of a memorial museum, which is that it’s there to help society wrap a story around a traumatic event so it can come to terms with it. It’s a way of turning it into history,” Hennes says. “It’s about maintaining an alive awareness of the meaning of 9/11 and the fact that it isn’t over. The events of 9/11 are a symbol of a larger and much more significant unfolding story. A museum which purely historicises would be out of place here.

“Visitors can put their own experience of this event into a more fully understood and fully realised context. The museum should enable people to be more engaged in the complex world that’s come out of this event and I think that’s a radically different mission for a museum.”

Without its human voices, faces and names, the museum would be a dissonant experience. And, it’s hard to imagine that a cold, hard, faceless version would be well received by a public who arrive from all over the world, people who have been there, as Hennes points out, in some way, before. The repercussions of 9/11 reach beyond Manhattan, after all.

For Greenwald, the humanity is central. “These were people just like you and me, who got up in the morning and went to work or boarded an aeroplane, and got caught in the vortex of a global event,” she says. “Over 90 nations were represented in the people killed. They were from two and a half to 85 years old, from every sector of the economy, every faith tradition, every ethnicity imaginable. They were us.”

Jake Barton Principal Local Projects

Jake Barton Principal Local Projects
Jake Barton Principal Local Projects

What was your role in the 9/11 Memorial Musuem?
I was half of the team, with Thinc Design, that won the international competition to masterplan the museum and design its exhibits and media. Local Projects produced all of the 100 media pieces inside.

How did you approach the project?
We spent an enormous amount of time looking to solicit and use the authentic narratives about the event in a way that would make the museum a platform for visitor self-expression. This would allow the museum to change and evolve and respond to every visitor’s story, meeting them where they were, and also allow the museum to change and evolve over time.

How did you use media in the exhibition?
We used media to execute the concept that the museum was a platform for collective memory. Visitors can leave their own memories, hear others’ stories, share messages which they can then see projected onto the slurry wall. This is all in the midst of the massive artefacts and stories that make the museum epic. The interactive media makes it a human and approachable experience, and each visitor can add to it.

What was the most challenging decision you had to make?
The decision to stop trying to design experiences in the abstract and jump into prototyping, to make the designs as real as possible as fast as possible. This was critical to move the project forward as for a while the project wasn’t making a huge amount of progress because it was all too abstract. This approach allows us and the client to see what’s successful or not, allowing for progress on even the most challenging project.

Which digital exhibit stands out for you?
Timescape is an algorithmic exhibit that culls meaning from the 3 million plus articles from 11 September 2001 to today. We authored an experience that creates linkages and meanings between these different articles. It’s updated daily. The timelines that it creates link today’s events back to the date of 9/11 and illustrate some of the causal roots of our post-9/11 world.

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