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Firefighters work around the World Trade Center after both towers collapsed in New York on September 11, 2001. (PETER MORGAN/REUTERS)
Firefighters work around the World Trade Center after both towers collapsed in New York on September 11, 2001. (PETER MORGAN/REUTERS)

In New York, making space to remember 9/11 Add to ...

It’s a deceptively simple question: How do you begin?

For the staff of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, finding the answer took nearly two years. They explored the question from every angle. Perhaps the starting point for visitors should be the 1993 bombing at the Twin Towers. Or maybe it was the construction of the two buildings in the late 1960s. Or did they need to go all the way back to the Crusades?

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In the end, they decided their story would commence “where most people alive that day started,” says Jan Seidler Ramirez, the museum’s chief curator. As visitors enter the exhibition, they will hear reactions from around the world to the initial, confusing moments of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the point at which the unimaginable had not yet become real.

Set to open to the public on May 21, the museum is the final major piece of the $700-million memorial complex at Ground Zero – and arguably the most contentious. Its task is no less than to tell the tale of the worst terrorist attack on American soil in the very place where the violence occurred. It must navigate between the needs of victims’ families, the sensitivities of survivors, the wishes of local residents, and the obligation to educate future generations.

Like nearly everything connected to the World Trade Center site, the museum has been a source of controversy. Some family members, for instance, have urged the staff to be as thorough as possible, telling them not to shy away from the horror of the day and to present an unsparing picture of its consequences. Others have pressed for more restraint, noting that the site amounts to a cemetery.

Putting together the museum can be seen as a series of questions that would have tested King Solomon. Should visitors hear voice mails left by people who perished in the towers? Should there be any images of dead bodies? Do you display photographs of the perpetrators? How do you discuss the subsequent war on terrorism and its consequences?

Behind those questions is a deeper story about how to balance history and commemoration, just 13 years after the attacks occurred – an eye-blink in the broader sweep of time. The tension embedded in the project, says Ms. Ramirez, is whether to “err on the side of the remembering the sensitivities of people who are coming to mourn irreplaceable people” or to “err on the side of doing an analytical, historical exegesis.”

James Young, an expert on Holocaust memorials who has been an academic adviser to the venture, says it is impossible to avoid ruffling at least some feathers. “No museum or memorial will ever please everybody, and that can never be the point,” says the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, who also served as a juror for the design of the 9/11 memorial and is writing an account of his involvement in the project.

Even so, he adds, “I anticipate that people are going to be stunned by all there is to know about that day.”

Precedents and Remains

The former World Trade Center site is now home to an austere and powerful memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11: two sunken pools descend into the ground where the towers once stood. Since it opened in 2011, the memorial has welcomed more than 11 million visitors. But it provides no context or information about the attacks save for a few paragraphs in a slender brochure.

That job was left to the museum. Its entry pavilion sits at ground level on the memorial plaza, but the exhibits are housed seven stories underground in the cavity left by the foundations of the towers. In that sense, the museum doesn’t just display artifacts; it is one. At one point, visitors will find themselves in a giant space containing a portion of the original slurry wall built to hold back the Hudson River when the World Trade Center was constructed.

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