Once you pass security, which is as strict as at an airport, everyone inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. The barking guards, now as fundamentally a part of American life as baseball and apple pie, are behind you and passing through this familiar indignity becomes part of the museum experience itself, which is all about sharp contrasts of mood and meaning, and the basic antinomies of life in a democracy that is also rapidly becoming a security state.
The museum itself is below ground. Visitors enter through an airy pavilion (designed by the innovative Norwegian firm Snohetta) built close to the two square and cavernous waterfall pits which are the official memorial to the destruction and death that came from the skies on Sept. 11, 2001. The impressive, ominous, and austere memorial designed by Michael Arad opened almost three years ago, in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The museum opened last month, and is intended as an educational, experimental supplement to the memorial.
But it is far more than a supplement. It is structured like our memories of the day, a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing on every television screen in America. It also overwhelms — or more literally undermines — the dignified power of Arad’s memorial by inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.
A labyrinth of suffering
Most of the educational material and the bulk of the museum’s “collection” are contained in a maze-like space that also requires lining up and waiting for entrance. Here we relive the events in detail, minute by minute. Because there were four planes, two towers and two horrifying moments of architectural collapse, the various timelines proliferate and overlap and replay the events from multiple perspectives. Repetition is the essential thing: We suffer the trauma again and again in a way that inflates our sense of participation in it. This isn’t history, it’s spectacle, and it engulfs us, makes us a part of it, animating our emotions as if we were there, again, watching it all unfold.
The sacrifice of first responders, their professionalism and selflessness, is central to telling the story of 9/11, as is the tragedy of lives cut short in the name of an obscene religious ideology. But the place to contemplate the nobility and sadness of that day is above ground, where the names of those who died are inscribed on the square rims of Arad’s memorial.