When the twin towers collapsed, multiple floors of concrete, drywall, carpeting and furniture were compressed into single, meteorlike objects. Two of these fragments, known as composites, were recovered during the excavation and were among the many thousands of artifacts considered for display in the National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Though the composites had been tested and showed no evidence of human remains, debate ensued. Should the objects be included in the museum at all? If so, how should they be preserved? And where?
A history museum crafts a narrative about the past by making choices. But in this case the choices that define the story have been predictably fraught. The museum must speak to competing audiences: survivors and families, those who watched on television, others not yet born, New Yorkers, and tourists from around the world.
The resulting museum is the product of years of conversation among architects, designers, curators, Sept. 11 families, psychologists and historians. Every detail has been considered, from the placement of a 58-ton steel column to the display of a woman’s shoes.
So it is that one of the composites now sits in a secluded alcove in the footprint of the north tower. Not too far away there is a stand with a box of tissues — also placed there by the exhibition designers.
Below, a tour of a space more than a decade in the making.
Entering the Museum
Most of the museum’s exhibition space sits at bedrock, 70 feet below street level. The visitor’s gradual descent — from daylight into darkness — has been carefully choreographed. The journey begins in a glassy pavilion that serves as an entry into the museum space below.
“For many people who experienced 9/11 from afar, or I think probably even children of those people, coming to the actual site is a kind of pilgrimage.”
TOM HENNES OF THINC DESIGN, LEAD EXHIBITION DESIGNER
Huge steel tridents, salvaged from the facade of the north tower, lead visitors symbolically into the museum. After a set of stairs, visitors continue down a long processional ramp.
Down the Ramp
The narrow corridor opens onto the first overlook of the museum space. Continuing on, large artifacts reinforce a sense that we have arrived at the World Trade Center site.
“If you think about the pools, they are impressed onto the site. The plaza is our roof. Bedrock is our floor. To the west is the slurry wall and the Hudson River and Battery Park City.”
STEVEN M. DAVIS OF DAVIS BRODY BOND, PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT
The ramp ends with a remnant of the Vesey Street stairs, which provided an escape for hundreds of people on Sept. 11, 2001. Visitors move alongside the stairs as they complete their journey down to bedrock.
Here visitors encounter a piece of “impact steel” — a portion of the north tower facade that was twisted by the direct hit from American Airlines Flight 11.
An elevator motor sits near a Ladder Company 3 firetruck that was destroyed when the north tower collapsed.
A 20-foot segment of the north tower’s radio and television antenna was salvaged from the wreckage, and is on display.
The Tower Footprints
The major exhibition spaces of the museum are situated beneath the memorial pools, in the footprints of the former towers.
“You don’t just drift across into the tower footprints. ... You are entering somewhat sacred ground within a very important and even sacred site as a whole.”
CARL KREBS OF DAVIS BRODY BOND, PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT
Remnants of the columns that supported the buildings mark the perimeter of each tower. Visitors must cross a bridge to enter the exhibitions.
In the footprint of the south tower, a memorial exhibition commemorates the lives of the victims, with photographs and interviews with loved ones.
On the site of the north tower, a historical exhibition addresses the events of the day itself, their aftermath and the events leading up to the attacks.
Arriving in Foundation Hall
The visit ends in Foundation Hall, a cavernous space that displays two of the museum’s most significant artifacts: a 36-foot steel beam known as the Last Column, and the slurry wall.
“It’s an artifact that illustrates a point, but it’s an artifact that gives us a story that we enter into.”
ALICE M. GREENWALD, DIRECTOR OF THE MUSEUM
During the cleanup at ground zero, workers tagged the Last Column with posters and written messages. At the end of the recovery period, the column was ceremonially removed from the site, shrouded and draped with an American flag.
A large portion of the slurry wall has also been preserved. As part of the towers’ construction, the wall was installed to keep the Hudson River back. On Sept. 11, 2001, the wall held.