Architecture review: At 9/11 Memorial Museum, a relentless literalism

The 9/11 Memorial Museum is now open to the public.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum is now open to the public.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Many New Yorkers, still trying to make sense of the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, have had a single question as a museum was being built at ground zero: Too soon?

Now that the 9/11 Memorial Museum, as it’s officially called, has opened to the public, they and others may find themselves asking something else: Too much?

The museum is an overstuffed answer to the appealing minimalism of the 9/11 memorial and its cascading pools, which opened in 2011.


It extends deep below the memorial in a series of cavernous, hangar-like rooms. Its galleries contain crushed fire trucks, mangled steel, multimedia displays, a torn seatbelt from one of the airplanes that hit the towers, clothing and bicycles covered with ash from their collapse, photographs, architectural models and literally thousands of other pieces of dark memorabilia.

The intensity, scope and sheer unrelenting literalism of this approach marks a significant change in how we choose to mark national trauma. No longer do we see memorials as capable of commemorating an entire war or attack on their own.

Though there are now plans to add one, there was no museum accompanying Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial when it opened in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Nearby, Friedrich St. Florian’s neoclassical National World War II Memorial, completed in 2004, also stands by itself.

These days we see the symbolic shorthand that art and architecture have always relied on to deal with violence and tragedy as wildly insufficient.

Instead we’ve embraced some crowd-pleasing mixture of authenticity, easily digested narrative and insta-history. We want to see and touch the Real Thing, and we want somebody to explain to us what the Real Thing means.

New purpose


The entrance to the 9/11 museum sits inside a two-story pavilion in the middle of the ground zero plaza, in the narrow space between the memorial’s twin pools. (Together the museum and memorial cost $700 million.) The pavilion was designed by Snøhetta, the busy Norwegian firm that is also working on a major expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Like many elements of the rebuilt ground zero, the building is a remnant of an earlier version of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the site. It was originally going to hold galleries for New York’s Drawing Center and something called the International Freedom Center, which would have told the story of struggles against totalitarianism around the world and was backed by George Soros and the historian Eric Foner, among others.

Later Snøhetta was asked to reconfigure the building as the entry hall for an underground museum dedicated to the events of Sept. 11.

The exterior is sleek and angular, wrapped in glass and shiny aluminum panels. Inside the spaces are calmer and will look more familiar to Snøhetta’s fans, with narrow slats of blond ash on the ceiling and concrete floors.

On its main level, the pavilion contains space for airport-style security screening. Upstairs are an auditorium and small cafe.

Escalators and a staircase lead down from the pavilion into the museum proper. It’s along these stairs, shadowed by two giant rusted steel beams rescued from the rubble, that Snøhetta hands off the architecture to Davis Brody Bond, a firm based in lower Manhattan.

At the base of the stairs is a spacious lobby. Unlike the pavilion above it is dark and cave-like, with wenge floors stained black.

This level features an information desk topped with giant vases of flowers. It also holds the museum gift shop, which has already drawn criticism for its kitschier items, which include neckties and coffee mugs emblazoned with the Gothic tracery that World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki used at the base of the original twin towers.

A wide ramp, dimly lighted, lined in that same dark wood, descends from the lobby toward the galleries. It leads past hanging video screens before reaching a broad overlook offering views down into the rest of the museum. It’s here that you first get a sense of the massive scale of this subterranean world.

The high concrete slurry wall that stayed intact after the towers fell, keeping the Hudson River from pouring into the site and giving Libeskind a ready-made symbol for New Yorkers’ resilience, makes up one side of the huge room below.

By the time you reach the bottom of this space you may already feel overwhelmed. But at this point you are just getting started. Directly ahead, inside giant boxes marking the footprints of the destroyed towers, are a pair of wrenching exhibitions.

In the footprint of the south tower is a detailed memorial with information on each of the nearly 3,000 victims. In the north tower are displays on the attacks and subsequent cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Both are profoundly moving, to the point of emotional exhaustion.

The exhibition designers, Thinc Design and Local Projects, and the museum’s director, Alice Greenwald, understand the power of this material, especially for New Yorkers. They’ve made room for special pedestals holding boxes of tissues.

There are many large items displayed in the open space between the north and south galleries. There is also a hidden room holding remains of some of the victims and open only to their families.

When you’ve seen all you can manage, you step on an escalator leading up to the lobby. At that point you can decide if you want one of those Yamasaki mugs, or a copy of the Sept. 11 Commission report in hardcover or paperback, before heading back up to the plaza level and back out into the city.

Potential audience

The official names that identify this huge complex give the first clue about the difficulty New York and the country have had in deciding how to mark the 2001 attacks. As a whole it is called the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum. The museum itself, with its own commemorative gallery, is called the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

So already we’re up to two memorials. But there’s more: The site of both the plaza-level memorial (designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker) and the underground museum were determined by Libeskind’s much-altered master plan. The jagged and mournful aesthetic of that plan allowed it to operate, to a significant degree, as a memorial in its own right.

That makes the museum just one part of a controversial, much-delayed and massively expensive three-part exercise in memorialization. Dedicated to remembering victims of terror attack, built under Arad’s pools and filling space carved out by the original master plan, it is a memorial beneath a memorial inside a memorial.

To be sure, the museum’s potential audience is exceptionally large and diverse. (Annual attendance is expected to exceed 2 million, despite a ticket price of $24.) It begins with the families of the victims. It includes residents of lower Manhattan and the rest of New York City and tourists from around the country and the world, many of whom watched the towers fall on television and therefore feel a sense of connection to these events that doesn’t apply at Gettysburg or Normandy.

Yet that is little justification for the museum’s crushing literalism. Maybe in the case of a Holocaust museum — and that’s what the 9/11 Memorial Museum most obviously resembles — it is necessary to include so many items and so much documentation, as a way to overwhelm any doubt about whether those atrocities took place.

But in service of remembering Sept. 11, among the most recorded tragedies in human history, and one that is not yet 15 years old? In this case it seems not just like overkill but a sign of curatorial weakness, an unnecessary acknowledgment of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

The museum’s 110,000 square feet of gallery space, glowing with the light of dozens of screens, represent a number of recent cultural trends coming unhappily together. We are a digital and connected society now; we expect a flood of information at our fingertips on any topic, instantly.

We trust experts and authority figures — whether they are curators, architects or artists — less and less; we want to make up our own minds, find our own paths through piles of evidence, whenever possible with the aid of authentic historical objects.

We are increasingly comfortable with visual storytelling and impatient with text; as a rule we want more images and shorter captions.

Each of these trends is essentially populist, even hearteningly democratic. The irony is that they converge in these galleries, deep below ground, in a way that robs visitors of the chance for meaningful personal reflection, which is what ruthlessly spare, minimalist memorials like Lin’s are so effective at providing.

Paradoxically enough, a mania for individualism — with interactive and multimedia displays that can produce a different experience for each visitor — winds up serving a kind of herd mentality. Packed full of objects, images and imposingly scaled rooms, the 9/11 museum is missing one basic feature: the space to be alone with your own thoughts.