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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 ...

Run by a non-profit institution, the museum and memorial were financed by private donations and government grants. Revenue from museum admissions ($24 per person) and souvenir sales is expected to cover most of the complex’s $60-million annual budget.

When the museum’s staff set out to plan their exhibitions, there were few models for what they hoped to achieve. Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director, had worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which offered valuable lessons but could not serve as a template: the atrocities it commemorates occurred on a different continent and half a century before it opened in 1995.

That same year, a massive bombing in Oklahoma produced the only applicable precedent. Located on the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 168 people died, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum was fully open by 2001.

Kari Watkins, its executive director, says her discussions with the people in York left a sense of déjà vu. Very few others have ever considered such issues – not only how to handle the perpetrators and their motives, but what to do with unidentified human remains.

Those found in Oklahoma are buried several kilometres away in a grove of trees at the state capitol. The 9/11 museum will house a repository of bone and tissue fragments, fulfilment of a long-standing promise by elected officials to return them to the site.

On the repository outer wall is a message to all from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The area inside is supervised by the city medical examiner, though, and accessible only to victims’ families.

The presence of the remains is the most controversial element of project. “The bottom line is that human remains do not belong in a museum,” says Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, was killed in the attacks. Afraid it will serve as “a bizarre, macabre draw,” she and others pressed for a tomb above ground that families could visit in solitude.

Finding the Limits

The museum is home to a plethora of powerful physical objects. They include fragments of all four planes that crashed on Sept. 11 (in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon as well as in New York); a piece of the World Trade Center’s façade; and a “composite,” the crushed remnant of several floors after being subjected to extreme heat and pressure.

The accompanying narrative traces the history of al-Qaeda, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and including the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. It also emphasizes moments of heroism and resilience in the rescue and rebuilding efforts in order to communicate a sense of hope even amid great loss. A separate area is devoted to the lives of all who died.

To tell the story of what happened on September 11 itself, the museum had a surfeit of images, recordings and video footage. One illustrative dilemma was how to handle the voice mails left by people who died in the towers. Some of the messages, says Ms. Ramirez, were full of grace and love while others gave voice to the terror of people facing an inferno and running out of air to breathe.

An academic adviser counselled the museum staff to consider the messages as a form of human remains – a person’s last spoken statement – and to handle them with corresponding delicacy. They decided that visitors will be able to hear a small selection of the messages by picking up listening devices, but not the most disturbing ones.

“To hear the human voice in distress, particularly female voices in distress, it just sent people to pieces,” says Ms. Ramirez. “We couldn’t let our visitors listen to those. They were just too much.”

Mary Fetchet gave permission for the museum to use a voice mail left by her son Brad not long after the first plane hit the South Tower. He was in the other tower. She says he sounded frightened, having seen people leap to their deaths, but still expected to stay in the office. Then the second plane crashed into the North Tower where he was, cutting off any escape.

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