There are a number of historic sights that are essentially centered around unspeakable tragedies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the beaches at Normandy, Auschwitz, the Cabinet War Rooms - all commemorate and pay tribute to the victims of horrible events. They are reminders that real people, families, whole generations perished through senseless and horribly sad violence. They sober us and remind us that life is precious.
There is something different about the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City, though. Unlike many of our national memorials that pay tribute to men and women who fought and died so far away or events that took place decades before we were even born, most of us have a clear memory of 9/11. It was recent. It is a event permanently seared into our brains. It happened right here, in New York City, in the same place where tourists gazed at the views from observation desks and business people showed up for work at desks that look just like our own. This isn't a historical event that our elderly grandparents told us about, memories faded with time and pain. 9/11 was a part of our collective, very recent past.
We visited Ground Zero shortly after the attacks in February of 2012. We will never forget the unspeakable sadness that permeated from the ground and seemed to float through the air. Five months after that terrible day, makeshift tributes still overflowed from the fences and sidewalks. Missing posters still lined the streets of lower Manhattan. It was overwhelming and simply horrible.
It was, therefore, hopeful to return here, almost thirteen years after September 11, 2001, to see the resilience and strength knitted into every single bit of the rebuilding project. One World Trade Center winks in the morning sunshine, light sparkling off it's glass windows as it reaches up to the sky. Green trees line the walkways while the sweet, relaxing sound of the fountains within the reflecting pools lull us into a sense of peace and tranquility. Yes, this is still a place of tragedy but it is also a place of hope for a better tomorrow, too.
The site contains two principle memorials: the twin reflecting pools which, combined with the Survivor's Tree, constitute the outdoor park area and the 9/11 Museum with its detailed exhibits telling the story of the day and its long-reaching affects. We begin our tour at the museum, a modern glass building situated next to the reflecting pools. Entrance to the museum is by ticket only and we strongly recommend buying your timed-entry ticket in advance. This complex is fairly new and was rather packed during our weekend visit. Tickets are $24 per adult with concessions available for seniors, children and members of the NYPD and Fire squads. Additionally, family members, rescue and recovery workers directly affected by the tragedy of 9/11 are granted free entry so absolutely view the website if you feel this may apply to you to get more information.
Your museum tour begins with a stop at the outdoor kiosk if you've
purchased your entry online to collect your actual printed tickets (you'll need your confirmation number to retrieve them). From there, enter the line to the left which controls access to the security screening. (Your ticket suggests you arrive 15 minutes before the time stated and you'll most certainly need it as the line can get pretty lengthy.) From there, you're ushered into an airport-style security check and then through to the lobby of the museum. Take the stairs down to the main entrance and continue down to the bottom floor where the exhibits begin.
The museum is divided roughly into two parts: 9/11 as a historic event and a memorial tribute to the victims of tragedy. Begin by moving to your left, past the symbolic Last Column in the Foundation Hall. Here you'll see surviving remnants of the original tower construction as well as a few of the makeshift tributes that workers and family members left for their loved ones and lost colleagues. Those missing posters that broke so many of our hearts during the days that followed the attacks are preserved near the Last Column (so-named because it was the last standing column to be removed from the site and preserved for future generations). Thirteen years later they are still hard to look at and carry the weight of the sadness each family member must have felt when posting them.
Enter the glass doors and you'll be in the historical exhibition entitled simply "9/11". This section takes viewers on a one-way path through the events of the day starting with the sunny, cheerful New York morning through the attack on the first tower, the impact of the second plane on the other tower, the fear, the heartbreak, the attacks on the Pentagon, the brave passengers who fought back and crashed the fourth plane in a field in Pennsylvania and, finally, the fall of the two mighty towers and the massive destruction they caused. The museum has posted many plaques notifying visitors that graphic content and painful imagery exists around alcoves and in individual exhibit spaces. It's still a shock, however, to see many of these photos, news clips and carefully selected artifacts again.
There are a lot of families visiting with children during our tour and a lot of these images and concepts may not be appropriate for some kids to see and experience. It's a choice every parent must make for their own children but this generation that has grown up in a "post 9/11 world" may not be prepared for the graphic violence of these horrible attacks. Katie is absolutely certain that her niece (Ally, 14 years old) and nephews (Kyle, 12 years and Thomas 8 months), who were born after or are too young to remember 9/11, do not need to see this place until they are grown. She knows they will learn about the evil that exists in this world, probably far earlier than she would like them to, but, for right now, her only thought is to shield them from it as long as she possibly can.
Thankfully, this isn't just a story about the horrible deeds of a very, very few select individuals who perpetrated these crimes or the overwhelming sadness that the loss of innocent life on such a grand scale brings; it is also a story of goodness. The plaques, videos, audio tapes and exhibits also pay tribute to the men and women who worked tirelessly to assist others. They tell the story of those that ran into the fire and, often, gave their lives a selfless attempt to save people. Just a few terrorists did a terrible, terrible thing but that horrible crime is buried in the mountain of stories about real-life heroes who pulled people from the wreckage, firefighters who charged up stairs they would never come down, police offices who rescued injured victims, people who made love the message of the day and not hate. Everyone must experience the museum and memorial in their own way but, for us, this is the thought that gave us peace and hope: the idea that love and compassion will always win over hate and fear. We have the heroes of 9/11 to thank for proving that once again.
The second half of the museum tells the story of the people that lost their lives on that September day. We are so very lucky - we didn't know anyone who was directly affected by the attacks - but we spent some time roaming the Memorial Exhibition just looking at the photos of those killed. They deserve to be remembered and we were happy to see the museum's efforts to put faces and stories with the names of the victims. A lovely little film plays on loop here in which family members speak their loved ones' names and often tell stories, accompanied by more photos. It's a lovely tribute.
Walking back to the exit, you get another look at the Survivor's Staircase, a concrete staircase at the edge of the plaza that led so many people to freedom after their escape from the towers. It's a final reminder of how sad and scary that day was for so many and how it's changed our lives since. From there, an escalator takes you back to ground level.
You exit through the gift shop. You always exit through the gift shop but it does seem a bit weird here. Maybe because of its recency or maybe just because we've been bombarded with 9/11 images over the years, but we don't take joy in this little shop the way we often do. Proceeds do go to support the work of the museum and its preservation efforts and many of the items are quite tasteful so we'll leave it up to you to decide whether its a good or bad idea.
Outside, the reflecting pools are lined with the names of those who lost their lives on 9/11, providing a peaceful tribute to these innocent victims. Here, a chance encounter really brought home the significance of what we'd seen that day. A man nudged past where we stood looking at the water. He nearly bumps into one of our friends who is slightly taken aback until we all see the man lean down and kiss a name carved into the fountain. He spent a moment or two stroking the name with his hand before leaning down to kiss it again, turning and walking away. His simple expression of grief, the tears we saw as he turned to go, touched us in a way nothing else all day had. It was quite some time before we were composed enough to move on. Sir, if you are reading this, please know that we will never forget your face...and your loved one that you lost, whoever it was, is in our prayers.
One last message of hope can be found at the Survivor Tree, the one lone tree that made it through the devastation and rebuilding efforts. Its to the west of the south reflecting pool and continues to grow as a reminder that life, does indeed, continue on. Like the plaza, it continues to get stronger.
For more info and tickets, visit: http://www.911memorial.org/
Who Should Go:
That's a tough question. There's no wrong or right answer... Personally, we wouldn't bring children under 15 or anyone with poor mental or physical health. The site is fully accessible but the content can be quite graphic and shocking in the Historical Exhibit. It's quite a lot, emotionally, to take in. That said, use your own judgement.
Please note, like many historical or religious sites, this is a solemn place. Always be respectful to other visitors and avoid using cell phones while touring the museum. Photography is allowed in some spaces but the museum respectfully asks that you turn off your flash.