Descent Into Darkness
Posted on May 22nd, 2014
The 9/11 Museum is not for me. It’s not for anyone who was in New York on that day or the days after. It’s for tourists looking for a visceral connection to an event they saw from a distance. For me there will never be a distance. And before I came to the museum I was wondering if that would be true.
Years after I thought I had my catharsis (read about it here) and thought I had move on, September 11, 2001 was back with a vengeance. I was anxious in the days before, and everything was magnified as soon as I entered the museum and descended into the dark and somber space. I didn’t know what I would feel, or if I would feel any connection to this. Could I view it with detachment after thirteen years?
The museum is a huge, dark, overpowering space, reflecting the buildings themselves. There is an opening silence and reverence which belies the chaos to come. There are large sections of the facade we all remember, the famous “freedom” staircase and the slurry wall. Then you go deeper. And deeper.
A part of the facade hangs like a sword of Damocles. Missing posters are projected on the walls. I searched the names and faces and remembered. I didn’t see the people who have stayed inside of me. I had hoped for that.
When you look down on the main space you see the famous last girder. I felt the gigantic emptiness and remembered all the times I was in the Towers. I felt small.
Then I entered the central guts of the museum, and I was unprepared for what came next: the voices of victims, of survivors, of witnesses, of sirens and newscasters. I found myself shaking as tears poured down my face amidst uncontrollable sobbing. It is so much smaller and claustrophobic in this warren filled with photos and items. I had to squeeze myself into a corner and cry. I considered leaving. I had no idea I would be so overwhelmed, but I forced myself to keep going, because I knew I would never come back here.
There were found objects, and donated objects, and a basic timeline meant to add perspective for those who needed to be reminded. I guess the exhibit was successful in one way: it echoed the chaos and disbelief everyone had that day. That is until we knew it for what it was. I recorded my remembrance in a too short two minute testimony and tried to make it to the end.
I saw the famous memo about Osama bin Laden poised to strike that Bush ignored. Everything else is a blur. I didn’t need to see any of it. It wouldn’t inform my experience of that time. It was like being in an overstuffed closet. I needed to get out of there.
Back in the large cavernous entrance area the pressure in my chest began to subside. I felt compelled to go to the gift shop for curiosity sake. I understand the impulse to take something with you to remember your visit, and it‘s so American to need to shop everywhere, no matter the circumstance. After all, isn’t that what we were told to do after September 11?
But arguing over the right or wrong of anything connected to this museum is an exercise in futility. If we really were to maturely and intelligently deal with our own actions and experiences then 9/11 would be a national museum fully funded and operated by the government. There wouldn’t be a gift shop or $24 entrance fee, which so many cannot afford. There would be real history taught that would give context to events before and after. But so many opportunists, from politicians to vendors to scam artists have used this to bash other sow hatred and make money that the day was dirtied way before this museum opened.
Think about it: you are standing on a killing field, yet capitalism marches on. Unidentified remains are only a touch away, and yet bickering and money took thirteen years to create this museum. I only hope there is some peace for those who were killed and for the families who will never be whole.
As for me, I am done with the public spectacle of September 11. I will keep it personal and inside of me and hold it with me for the rest of my days.
Tagged: 9/11 museum, new york, September 11, stella kramer, stellazine
Friend and brilliant photographer Giovanni Savino pointed me to your post. Thanks for your articulate insights. I had feared that the Museum would not reflect the tragedy in ways beyond morbid theatrics.
Perhaps you too were moved by one of the original design competitors that included gardens on some of the top floors of the proposed toweres. Gardens and the vista seemed so moving, heartbreaking AND life-affirming that it seemed too perfect to be approved. Then we saw the David Childs proposal – which looked like a napkin sketch compared to the others lavish models and virtual walk-throughs– and like so many of us, i assumed the ‘competition’ was over…)
As someone who lost so many colleagues and friends from the AIDS pandemic, which still has no memorial in NYC, i can’t help but hope that people still grieving from 9-11 have found their own places (public and private) to honor loved ones.
Thanks again for your observations.
I completely agree with you, gardens would have been a much more palatable memorial to the happenings of 911.