Over Thanksgiving weekend last year I went with my boys to see the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The Memorial had been open for three years by that point; the Museum for six months. I’d dragged my heels in going (by my standards) because I wanted to avoid crowds. But the lines were still long, very long last November. I hope that that will be the case for a long time to come.
You either get why such a place exists, or you don’t. Most of my New York friends have long been in “I wanna forget about this already and move on” mode. If you know anything about me, you know that I am ALWAYS in NEVER FORGET mode, not just about this, but about everything. The people who gave their lives deserve that much. The cause of peace in the future deserves that much. The survivors and the relatives of the deceased deserve that much respect. Periodic contemplation is not morbid; it is appropriate. Among other things, it is one of the reasons art even exists.
I only took a couple of snaps that day, I wanted to experience the place unfiltered. And I didn’t blog about it at the time, because what can you say? Also, there are certain times and places where I think it is appropriate to leave your critical eye at the door. But then I realized that that’s true about monuments and memorials…and it isn’t. Because there are important things to get right here, and if they hadn’t gotten it right, I would have been harshly and vocally critical. So I walked in with an open mind but I also walked in with judgment, because this subject is important and personal to me. But it surpassed my hopes.
First, I worried that somehow it wouldn’t be enough, that there would be too little of it, that it would be too small, that the scale of it would be insufficient. I worried less about that with the Memorial, which literally occupies the footprints of the Twin Towers, than with the Museum, which occupies the former “bathtub”, the subterranean walls that kept/keeps New York Harbor from flooding into the WTC sub-basements. This is an age of diminished expectations; we seem unable to do anything anymore on a scale we accomplished routinely a century ago. The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore — those are big things, large enough to match the emotions they are meant to inspire. You look at them and you say “people can do things.” But I want you to know that despite the fact that I went to this Museum carrying a kernel of that skepticism with me, prepared to say that it was perfectly nice but more modest than I had hoped, in spite of that hurdle, I found that the scale and design and content of the Museum defied that jaded energy, overcame it and overwhelmed me. It is HUGE. It is huge in a way that is powerful and surprising and unexpected and eloquent about what was there, and what was lost, and who we are. and who we might be, and what we must overcome to continue as a civilization. Like New York City and the World Trade Center itself, it is cavernous, it goes on and on and on, and I was full of admiration for and gratitude toward the people who built this. It is equal in scale to the courage and sacrifice of the heroes, and to the sadness of the loss. As a work of art and a tribute to certain people’s lives I feared it wouldn’t be big enough. It is big enough. And I assure you that coming from me, with my expectations, that is high. high praise.
The second question, a major one given the subject, is that of taste. There is no universal “right” for this, and there are millions of potential wrongs and minefields. Everyone has a different barometer as far as that goes, and that’s why the Museum has been a political football since Day One. For some, the existence of a museum at all is wrong. Others would want it to be extremely traditional, or subdued. For me, personally, it is about catharsis and emotion and direct experience. It is about chaos and honesty and awe and empathy all at the same time. It was an event too complex to digest or ever understand. I didn’t come to think about anything intellectually, I came to feel something, to connect with others, to partake in a shared experience, to contemplate, to pray. And for me, this museum does that job and answers that need. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it does that for you.
For some reason, it feels kind of gauche to describe in literal detail what they have on view in this Museum. You should just go (if you want to) and have your own experience. I think it is a healthy thing to do, and I know that I will return from time to time. I couldn’t help taking this picture, though. I found it moving and eloquent somehow about what September 11 means to a New Yorker like me, who didn’t lose anyone personally, but just lost a city he knew, overnight. The staircase in the middle used to be part of the complex’s exterior, on the north side. For about a year I lived on Greenwich Street just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. I don’t know how many times I walked on those steps, along with millions of New Yorkers. 200? 300? One day, it became part of a ruin. And suddenly it is a thing to look at it in a museum. Part of the past.