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Fragments of the fuselage of Flight 11, which slammed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11 – and fell at 10:28 a.m.Damon Winter/The New York Times

It's hard to enter the new National September 11 Memorial Museum without a sense of foreboding.

For anyone with memories of that day in 2001, a visit requires you to return to a time you're not sure you want to relive. It's perhaps fitting that seeing the museum involves a slow descent, via ramps. The main exhibits are seven storeys below ground in the structural cavity where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

The museum, which opens to the public on May 21, is austere and striking, much like the memorial next to it. You may find yourself walking slowly through its spaces, whether out of apprehension or awe. The mind struggles to grasp the enormity of the towers and the destructive power of that day. One of the first artifacts is a section of steel, bent and warped, from the point of impact of the first plane. Another is a fire truck that was half crushed when the buildings collapsed.

In its retelling of what happened on Sept. 11, the museum immerses visitors in sounds and images. There are television clips, photographs, voicemails and transmissions by first responders. To make sense of the overlapping events, there is an impressive timeline documenting the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, together with the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

The result is both astonishing and excruciating. Numerous times, I felt rooted to where I stood, frozen by what I was seeing or hearing. There is the voice of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, telling passengers to stay quiet and not to make "any stupid moves." There are the projected images of people jumping or falling from the towers. And there is the video taken by an American astronaut from space, where he points out the billowing smoke but tries to reassure New Yorkers that their city is still beautiful from where he sits.

A separate part of the exhibition is devoted to the lives of the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11 and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. That portion will open after the museum's dedication ceremony on Thursday, an event for family members, survivors, first responders and recovery workers. U.S. President Barack Obama is also scheduled to attend.

Alice Greenwald, the museum's director, said Wednesday that she hoped the museum would leave visitors with an appreciation of the human capacity for rebuilding and resilience. It does, but not so much through the exhibits themselves.

The ascent to ground level accomplishes it even more effectively. Emerging from the cavern into the museum's atrium, there is daylight and a glimpse of trees. Just beyond sits New York on a cloudy May afternoon – tourists, cops, pigeons, garbage trucks, the sounds of construction saws and car horns, distant sirens and traffic.