Visiting the 9/11 museum is an emotional experience, delivering the message that our resilient nation rises from the ashes.
The sky was a vivid blue canvas as I sat on a bench outside the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center in New York City. Behind me, water was softly cascading in the black granite memorial pool where the WTC north tower once stood. I could not have found a more peaceful setting to wait for the museum to open, but my mind would not let me have solace. All I could envision were planes flying in low against the clear blue sky on that fateful morning 18 years ago.
Sept. 11—it’s a date we will never forget. Like many other infamous ones, we’ll remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that planes had crashed into the twin towers, two of the most iconic buildings gracing the New York skyline.
Located on eight of the 16 acres at the World Trade Center site, the memorial plaza and the museum honor the 2,983 people who were killed in the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and in the Feb. 26, 1993, WTC bombing. The memorial plaza, which opened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, consists of two reflecting pools formed in the footprints of the original twin towers. Named “Reflecting Absence,” the pools contain the names of everyone killed in the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, on United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania, and in the 1993 bombing.
The museum opened in May 2014 after delays and controversies and has since become one of New York City’s most-visited attractions. Although the museum receives about 9,000 visitors per day from all 50 states and around the world, the percentage of local visitors has been low—about 20 percent come from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, according to a 2016 survey the museum conducted. Many locals simply are not ready to relive that emotionally harrowing day, and that’s understandable because the destruction and terror are on full display. Although I do not have ties to the city or anyone who died on 9/11, I was not prepared to be so overwhelmed when I entered the cavernous facility, but I thought I could get through the visit without crying.
The 110,000-square-foot exhibition portion of the museum is mostly located beneath the memorial plaza and contains more than 67,500 items, including 17,200 artifacts, and over 44,000 print and digital images. Physical remnants—including a New York Fire Department Ladder 3 firetruck missing its cab, personal items like watches and shoes, photos that once sat on desks, battered fire helmets—are too numerous to mention in detail, but many items gave me pause. I circled around twice just to see the Virgil quote, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” that stretches 60 feet across a blue-tiled wall in Memorial Hall. Blacksmith Tom Joyce made each of the 15-inch letters from steel appropriated from the wreckage of the towers. Behind the quote, the site-specific art installation titled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky” was particularly haunting to me. I had already dwelled on that blue sky earlier, and here was a tribute to it with blue tiles representing the people who died.
Etched in my memory from my visit are the survivors’ stairs and the last column. The Vesey Street stairs served as an escape route for hundreds of people. The column was the last item removed during the recovery and cleanup effort. The messages written on it came to symbolize the determination and dedication of those who participated in those efforts. But it was Memorial Hall, where each and every victim is remembered with photos, biographies, and voice recordings from family members, that had the most impact for me.
Over 67k items are on display at the museum,
including artifacts and print, and digital images
I didn’t get through the building without crying. I wept as I looked at the Memorial Hall photos of people in their prime whose lives were taken away in one hellish morning. I sobbed when I heard the voicemail recordings left by people inside the building and on Flight 93 calling loved ones to say one final goodbye.
But, solace…I found it when I looked at those same faces, and I knew they would never be forgotten. They forever will be a part of the memorial and museum that triumphantly stand for human dignity over human depravity.
Despite the solemnity of the events detailed at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, I highly recommend visiting. Former museum CEO Joseph C. Daniels best summed up the site’s historic relevance when the museum opened in 2014: “We built this museum…to make sure that our children’s children’s children know what this country went through on 9/11 and, equally as important, know how we came together to help one another with absolutely limitless compassion.”
If You Go
Reserve your timed tickets online; otherwise, you could be standing in line a long time and tickets do sell out. Also, you will want to visit as early in the day as possible. I went at 9am and by 10:30, the halls were getting crowded. Give yourself at least three hours to see the entire complex.
The museum is open daily beginning at 9am. Closing hours vary depending on the day. Museum admission is $26, adults; $20, seniors 65-plus and young adults; and $15, youth. The exterior memorials are free, including the newest one honoring those whose deaths have been attributed to 9/11-related illnesses.
Most helpful was the free audio app that is available for iPhone or Android devices. I wish I had known to download the app in advance, because I could have planned my visit more efficiently. Produced by Acoustiguide for the 9/11 Museum, the audio tour is professionally narrated by actor Robert De Niro. Be sure to bring a headset or earphones to listen as the mood inside the exhibits is reverent.
And if you can’t visit in person, the museum’s website also offers an excellent virtual tour that shows the sheer magnitude of the space inside the museum and many of the exhibits.