Was it going to be primarily a historical document, a monument to the dead or a theme-park-style tourist attraction? How many historical museums are built around an active repository of human remains, still being added to? How many cemeteries have a $24 entrance fee and sell souvenir T-shirts? How many theme parks bring you, repeatedly, to tears?
Because that's what the museum does. The first thing to say about it, and maybe the last, is that it's emotionally overwhelming, particularly, I expect, for New Yorkers who were in the city on that apocalyptic September day and the paranoia-fraught weeks that followed, but almost as certainly for the estimated 2 billion people around the globe who followed the horror unfolding on television, radio and the Internet.
Anguished, angry questions about the museum, raised by families of some of the 2,983 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, have been widely reported. Debates over purpose, propriety and protocol are still in the air. At times, they have threatened to derail the project, or delay it indefinitely. But the work inched forward, and the museum that emerged is true to its initial and literally fundamental goal: to tell the Sept. 11 story at ground zero bedrock.
While the accompanying National September 11 Memorial - two granite basins of cascading water that fill the twin tower footprints - is viewable from a street-level plaza, the museum is almost entirely subterranean. The bulk of it, some 10,000 square feet of gallery space, is 70 feet below ground, where the foundations of the towers met raw Manhattan schist.
Invisibility can make for strong drama. A descent into darkness is the stuff of suspense. It's also the classic route of religious ritual and regeneration, bringing images of the tomb and the seedbed to mind. The museum makes full use of these associations and reveals itself slowly.
The drama starts, low key, on the plaza level with an aboveground entry pavilion midway between the memorial fountains. Designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, it's a glass box set at a sharp, dizzy tilt, like a tipping building or a listing ship. The blond-wood atrium, with its coat checks, a small cafe and a closed-off room for the use of Sept. 11 families, is atmospherically neutral, even bland, but offers an unmistakable sight: two of the immense steel trident columns that were the signature features of the twin tower facades.
Once aluminum-covered, now rusted, this pair survived the collapse of the north tower. And although they dwarf the atrium, you're only seeing a small section of them. Peer over a balcony, and you can follow their lines plunging several stories down, the direction you will now take to a second lobby area below plaza level, out of the range of natural light, and not so neutral in feeling.
Among other things, the fraught global politics of Sept. 11 and the World Trade Center are hinted at here in an astonishing quotation, emblazoned on a wall, by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the towers, in which he declares the buildings "a monument to world peace."
Suffice it to say, not everyone bought this utopian gloss. To many people, these quarter-mile-high structures were at best two cold, giant vertical bars of silver bullion, at worst obscene gestures of capitalist might.
And even as you read the architect's words, you hear the Sept. 11 narrative being introduced nearby in a dark hallway leading farther into the museum. Projections of global maps and stricken faces line the path. Voices of people giving clipped, urgent accounts of catastrophe crowd the air.
Recorded sound, once inadmissible in conventional museums, plays a major role in this one. So does scale. You emerge from the corridor's close, oppressive aural cloud onto a platform overlooking a yawning space and an archaeological monolith: a 60-foot-high exposed section of the World Trade Center's slurry wall. This thick, foundational barrier of poured concrete, laid before construction began in 1966, was, and is, the bulwark between the Trade Center and the Hudson River.
When the twin towers collapsed, there was fear that the wall would give, flooding the site. It didn't give. It cracked, but held, and was quickly claimed as an emblem of indomitability and resilience. Daniel Libeskind, when he was hired as master planner for a new Trade Center complex in 2003, spoke of the slurry wall as the soul of his design, and by then it had already served as a multipurpose symbol of urban recovery, democracy, communal strength, the human spirit, not to mention the virtues of sound engineering.
Metaphorical thinking was rife in the days and months after Sept. 11. Everything was framed in terms of darkness and light, wounding and healing, death and rebirth. The interior design of the museum, by the New York firm Davis Brody Bond, preserves this kind of thinking in several of its features, notably in a long, descending ramp that leads visitors down seven stories, between the gigantic sunken cubes of the memorial pool basins, to true ground zero.
The ramp was inspired by an access road that was created during the early recovery phase and eventually took on a sacral aura. But in the museum context, the ramp becomes a processional path, lined with anticipatory vistas and projected versions of the "Missing" posters that papered the post-Sept. 11 city for weeks.
The commemorative display is, basically, the equivalent of a communal, life-honoring memorial service perpetually in progress. Photographs of nearly 3,000 people cover the walls of a gallery. The same faces, along with biographical portraits and spoken reminiscences, can be pulled up on touch screens and projected large in another room. Some 14,000 still unidentified or unclaimed Sept. 11 remains reside, unseen, in an adjacent repository, at the request of a vast majority of families.
A smaller group has protested the presence of the remains here. Families of some victims have balked at the idea of a museum - especially one that will inevitably swarm with casual tourists - doubling as a mortuary. Others fear that a building that took on 11 feet of water during Hurricane Sandy could flood again. Finally, the fact that the remains are not technically entombed but in storage, and subject to removal for testing, under the auspices of the city's chief medical examiner, inevitably compromises any sense of repose.
Repose is the last word you'd associate with the museum's other, larger exhibition, addressing that September day itself. Winding through several galleries, it calls on videos, audio recordings, photographs and hundreds of objects to document, minute by minute, the events of that Tuesday, from 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower, and on past 10:28 a.m., when that tower fell, by which time three other planes were pulverized, the Pentagon was in flames, and thousands of people were gone.
The installation is the work of a team of designers led by the museum's director, Alice M. Greenwald, formerly an official at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. It is culled from over 10,000 artifacts in the museum's collection, and some of them are devastating: recordings of last phone calls; photographs of doomed firefighters heading into action; surveillance videos of hijackers passing - no problem - undetected through airport security.
Certain material, like video stills of people leaping from the towers, are set in alcoves with advisory notices, but even things not usually considered shocking can leave you dumbstruck.
For some reason, the largest objects - an intact firetruck with carefully folded hoses but a burned-out cab; a steel column plastered with prayer cards; a storefront jeans display still covered with World Trade Center ashes - are the easiest to take, maybe because of their public identity, or even their resemblance to contemporary sculpture. The hundreds of small, battered personal items, many donated by families of the victims, are another story. Their natural realm is the purse, the pocket, the bedside drawer at home; they feel too ordinary and intimate to have ended up under Plexiglas. Infused with lost life, they make the experience of moving through this museum at once theatrical, voyeuristic and devotional.
Its nearest equivalent I can think of is the dynamic of religious pilgrimage sites, whether Christian churches, Buddhist temples or Sufi shrines. There, the mortal remains of saints, and objects sanctified by their touch, are the focus of attention. Here, you also walk a long, sanctified route, stopping at the equivalent of side chapels and altars, contemplating icons, talismans and embodied miracles: a pair of crossed steel ground zero girders that to some eyes formed a crucifix, a Bible found fused to a hunk of steel and opened to a passage that warns against repaying violence with violence.
The prevailing story in the museum, as in a church, is framed in moral terms, as a story of angels and devils. In this telling, the angels are many and heroic, the devils few and vile, a band of Islamist radicals, as they are identified in a cut-and-dried, contextless and unnuanced film called "The Rise of al-Qaida," seen at the end of the exhibition.
The narrative is not so much wrong as drastically incomplete. It is useful history, not deep history; news, not analysis. This approach is probably inevitable in a museum that is, to an unusual degree, still living the history it is documenting; still working through the bereavement it is memorializing; still attached to the idea that, for better and worse, Sept. 11 "changed everything," though there is plenty of evidence that, for better and worse, this is not so. The amped-up patriotism set off by the attacks has largely subsided. So has the tender, in-this-together generosity that Americans extended to one another at the time.
Still, within its narrow perspective, maybe because of it, the museum has done something powerful. And, fortunately, it seems to regard itself as a work in progress, involved in investigation, not summation. I hope so. If it stops growing and freezes its narrative, it will become, however affecting, just another Sept. 11 artifact. If it tackles the reality that its story is as much about global politics as about architecture, about a bellicose epoch as much as about a violent event, it could deepen all our thinking about politics, morality and devotion.
The National September 11 Memorial Museum opens May 21 at 1 Albany St. at Greenwich Street, Lower Manhattan; 212-266-5211; 911memorial.org.