The National September 11 Memorial Museum is the global focal point for preserving the history of the 9/11 attacks and exploring their continuing significance. The Museum tells the story of the events of 9/11 through artifacts that range in scale from the monumental to the intimate, as well as through first-person accounts and multimedia displays. The Museum’s mission is to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993. The Museum honors the victims of these attacks and all who risked their lives to save others. It further recognizes the thousands who survived and all who demonstrated extraordinary compassion in the aftermath. Demonstrating the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and its impact on communities at the local, national, and international levels, the Museum attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.
Visitors to the 110,000 square foot Museum descend a gently sloped ramp as they make their way to the original World Trade Center foundation level 70 feet below ground, where the main exhibition space is located.
A historical exhibition, September 11, 2001, tells the story of what happened on 9/11, including the events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and on Flight 93. This exhibition explores the background leading up to the attacks and examines their aftermath and continuing implications.
A memorial exhibition, In Memoriam, honors the victims of the attacks of 2001 and 1993. Portraits of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the attacks convey the scope and scale of loss. In a quiet chamber, profiles of individual victims invite visitors to bear witness, and serve as a reminder that we are all diminished when any one of us suffers the loss of a loved one through a senseless act of terrorism.
Artifacts are also arranged in “interstitial areas” surrounding the main historical and memorial exhibitions, and these connected spaces function as a complete, thought-provoking experience. Visitors encounter artifacts scarred by the attacks and the archaeological remnants of the buildings, including vestiges of structural columns that now delineate the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Also presented are works of tribute art and installations that invite visitors to leave messages of remembrance and hope.
The Museum was dedicated on May 15, 2014, and opened to the public on the May 21. In its first nine months since opening, the Museum has welcomed more than two million visitors.
Thinc Design with Local Projects and Layman Design
Centered around the Last Column and slurry wall, the Museum’s Foundation Hall focuses on the potential for recovery and resilience in the aftermath of 9/11.
Tom Hennes<br>The exhibition journey begins with voices and projected words recalling the moment when people around the world first heard about the attacks on 9/11.
Tom Hennes<br>Global witness moves to historic witness as a soundscape of voices recalling that day transitions to archival photographs of eyewitnesses watching the events unfold.
Tom Hennes<br>Visitors arrive at the Museum’s main exhibition level alongside the historic Survivors’ Stairs, which was used by hundreds who evacuated to safety on 9/11.
Jin Lee<br>In the historical exhibition, the events of 9/11 are captured on timelines and maps augmented with projected flight path animations and audio wand stations.
Jin Lee<br>Quotes, voicemail recordings, and videos in the exhibitions reflect personal reactions in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Footage seen here by William Basinski.
Tom Hennes<br>Visitors leave impressions on kiosks adjacent to a piece of remnant steel, which are projected onto a map comprising the names and promises visitors made.
Jin Lee<br>The massive scale of rescue and recovery efforts is emphasized in the historical exhibition through video projected on steel recovered from Ground Zero.
The events of 9/11 not only destroyed the lives of thousands killed in their violence on the ground and in the air, but it shattered families, communities, and tens of thousands who survived. The Memorial Museum was built in the first instance to remember and honor the victims of the attacks, as well as the survivors, responders, recovery workers, and others who mobilized in the face of the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001. It also has the goal of assisting society in the processes of repair following the traumatic disruption that was experienced in varying ways and to varying degrees by countless people around the world. At the most general level, it has to provide an encapsulation of what happened on that day and in its aftermath; at its most personal, it should assist individuals in gaining fuller access to their own memories, responses, and feelings related to 9/11 through reflection and identification with the diverse individuals, stories, and objects they encounter in the Museum. At its best, it should enlarge our understanding of the events and promote empathy along with the fundamental recognition that terrorism is an unacceptable form of response to political grievance in an increasingly interdependent world. In this way, the Museum stands as an ethical alternative to the intolerance, hate, and violence enacted by the 9/11 perpetrators and others who follow them. The challenge in this museum is to engage people in extraordinarily vivid material without overwhelming them, enabling them to bear witness.
There is no single story of 9/11; there are multiple stories. Because much of the documentation of 9/11 and its aftermath is digital, the Museum treats physical objects and digital artifacts with equal significance. This permits extensive use of first-person narrative and reduces reliance on a “museum voice” that shapes one particular interpretation of a complex history that continues to unfold. Physical materials and the archaeological site provide a “here-and-now” museum experience—a safe environment for witnessing in the presence of others. The digital materials—mostly narrative accounts—provide a compelling sense of the “there-and-then” of 9/11 without immersing people in a re-creation of the day.
Avoiding “immersion” is an important aspect of the project. It’s important to signal a way of navigating the material that gives people control of their own experience, while taking into account the variety of points of view and evolving notions of the meaning of 9/11. We recognized early that by collecting together accounts and voices, by inviting visitors to submit their own stories and responses, or by defining the post- 9/11 world with an evolving algorithm, we could signal that the 9/11 story is not fixed and that its meaning is personal and evolving.
By presenting authentic narratives of the event in juxtaposition with each other—even when they are contrasting—the Museum could assist people in locating their own experience of 9/11 within this wider field of experience, and embracing complexity in the world that is its result.
The Museum curatorial and creative team spent nearly a decade researching the events of 9/11 and collecting material from primary sources. This material included artifacts that ranged from huge pieces of steel to personal effects donated by victims’ families, as well as thousands of oral histories from survivors, officials, rescue and recovery workers, family members, community members, and the broader public. Many of the digital materials—stories that were collected, histories that were sought, visualizations of the events as they transpired—were created to inform the exhibits and as an archive of this historic event.
The digital material is integrated into the physical exhibition space in a way that is unprecedented and in a way that consciously seeks to bring the past into juxtaposition with the present in the Museum experience. This required the development of novel techniques for the management of digital archives and public interaction within the Museum—both accessing and donating material in real time.
Digital material was gathered in an open online call for 9/11 stories, building a community, awareness of the project, and a new global archive all at the same time. Reflecting on 9/11 gathers stories from around the country and world with reflections on the post 9/11 world and its meanings. Stories and remembrances for victims of the attacks were recorded in advance, and the Museum continues to collect such recordings, reflecting the Museum as a platform for expression.
The Museum worked with a number of representative constituent groups including victim’s family members, survivors and first responders, and museum professionals. The Museum also sought the assistance throughout the process of subject experts in history, theology, psychology, memorialization, and other related fields. Furthermore, quarterly “Museum Planning Conversation Series” sessions were conducted over the course of the project, many with nearly a hundred people in attendance. These sessions were structured around specific issues that arose over the course of the content and design development process and were critical to achieving a well-informed decision process on how to proceed. User studies were conducted to ensure the completed Museum would successfully serve its diverse audience.
This museum has an unusually wide range of stakeholders who feel a legitimate and intimate connection to it. These range from people who lost loved ones or who themselves survived the attacks, to people who feel themselves to be living in a changed world even though they were far from the attacks. The entire team participated in a process of exploring the range of stakeholders interests and developed a rigorous set of objectives and strategies to accommodate them successfully. It often came back to these original objectives to gauge the efficacy and progress of the work.
These processes coalesced in what could be characterized as “relational design”—an emergent form of museum design that facilitates a deeply personal experience within a fundamentally social setting. Its goal is not simply to “tell” the story of 9/11 but, more importantly, to enable museum users to more fully connect with the many different experiences of 9/11—objectively and subjectively—in ways that are most meaningful and useful to them.
The design of the Museum is based on several core assumptions. The first is that 9/11 is not remote for most people who visit the Museum—virtually everyone alive at the time of the attacks has a “9/11 experience” that is deeply personal and intensely felt, and even children too young to remember directly, or born after the events, will have experienced 9/11 through their parents’ and other adults’ first-hand stories of their own experience. Therefore, people need to connect their own experience to what they encounter in the Museum, and the narrative elements, beginning with the Introductory Exhibition, provide a multiplicity of touch-points, along with many of the objects on exhibit. The second is that there is no single narrative of 9/11; the event was witnessed, experienced, and understood in countless ways that nonetheless together comprise the texture and substance of this event. The third is that the Museum lives within a tension between the societal need to memorialize and the imperative to move beyond it; commemorating 9/11 as a past event and the ever-present reminders that 9/11 is not over, as the world still struggles to resolve the rifts that the attacks so vividly revealed. These seemingly contradictory needs find expression in differing zones of the Museum, such the memorial exhibition with its focus on vibrant, lived lives, the end of the historical exhibition that poses questions pertaining to the present world, or various media installation that emphasize the continuum of the evolving meaning of 9/11 from 2001 to the present day as refracted through the news or reflected upon by people affected by the events of 9/11.
The Museum also has a high amount of participation. In the first nine months since opening, more than 200,000 visitors have left digital comments that are displayed for future visitors to see. The poetry of creating a post-9/11 community of thought and reflection is one of the Museum’s most significant legacies, giving voice to the experiences of many, shaping individual narratives into a story of global impact.
In a Fall 2014 visitor study conducted by Audience Research & Analysis, 99% were extremely or very likely to recommend the Museum’s exhibitions to friends and family, and 86% came away thinking that the Museum had exceeded their expectations. Visitor feedback has been overwhelmingly positive:
“Incredibly done. We are humbled and grateful.”
– Visitor from North Carolina
“Thank you for enlightening future generations.”
– Visitor from Singapore
“This renews our hope for a better future.”
– Visitor from Brazil
“Though, obviously, there is a great deal of sadness, experiencing [the exhibition] was breathtaking, powerful, and historic.”
- Visitor from Massachusetts
“An extraordinary experience. What you have done is capture that day and the many days that followed so extremely well that anyone visiting, now and hopefully forever, will never forget.”
– Family member of 9/11 victim
“A wonderful place to remember those we loved, and all those who perished on 9/11.”