Here’s What It’s Like To Visit The 9/11 Memorial Museum

A visitor gazes at the 2,977 painted squares, one for each victim of the Sept. 11 attacks at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, July 21, 2015.
Photo by Michael Lane Smith

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I had just started second grade. I woke up around 7 a.m. in my home at Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, California, and walked into the living room — part of my daily routine before school.

My mother was standing next to the couch wearing her bathrobe with her hair wrapped up in a towel staring at the television. I’d seen her cry once a few years before, but I’d never seen that look of absolute terror on her face. I’d never seen her with her hands to her mouth, tears running down her cheeks, and no idea what to tell her 7-year-old son asking, “Why are people jumping out of the really tall buildings on TV?”

This was my 9/11.

That day changed my life just as it changed the world,  claiming the lives of 2,977 people and spurring into motion the longest war the United States has ever waged. Almost 14 years have gone by, and over time, I’ve held on to most, if not all, of the gravity of that day.

Recently I had the chance to visit New York’s 9/11 Memorial Museum. Walking through its halls — passing the foundations of the Twin Towers, among broken cars, helmets, and building pieces — brought me to the very time and space at which New York City’s greatest tragedy occurred. The magnitude of tragedy weighs heavy on my, and every visitor’s, shoulders.

Photograph displayed in museum taken from Brooklyn of the New York City skyline around 8:30 am on Sept. 11.Photo by Michael Lane Smith

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened in May 2014, and is now visited by 8,000–9,000 people daily, according to the museum’s communications department. The museum maintains artifacts from the towers, the rescue workers, the victims, and the survivors of both the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the events of Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The museum was designed to place you, the visitor, at 8:30 a.m. that morning, and guide you through the entire fateful day. The first display shows pictures from that morning — the clear blue sky behind New York City’s famous skyline, exquisitely painting an innocent scene. You step past the picture from that morning, passing the pillars on which projections show faces of bystanders as they stare at the city’s landmark towers burning in front of them, and from above you hear an audio montage from morning news outlets saying, “Reports are coming in from New York City ... a plane flew into the World Trade Center Twin Towers.”

Museum visitors gaze up at the "Last Column," the final piece of rubble removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.Photo by Michael Lane Smith

You advance into a great wide hall, as missing persons posters stare at you from the walls, asking, “Have you seen my daddy?”

A wide art display before you reads a famous quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

To the left is the foundation of the southernmost tower, and to the right is the northern tower. You walk between the foundations where the towers were crushed under their own weight.

The foundation of the North Tower provides a space for every victim’s face on the walls. A digital registry with the victims’ biographical information is contained within interactive tables, so their memories can be shared with visitors. The South Tower’s foundation provides an immersive experience of 9/11, practically by the minute from 8:30 a.m. until the sun sets.

Audio plays from United Airlines Flight 175 passenger Brian Sweeney leaving one last message for his wife, Julie.

“Jules, it's Brian. Listen, I'm on an airplane that's been hijacked. If things don't go well, it's not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, go have good times, same to my parents and everybody, and I just totally love you. And I’ll see you when you get there. Bye, babe. I hope I call you.”

There are many more audio clips from that day saved in the archives that play as you walk through the exhibits. Video clips from that morning’s airing of The Today Show with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer play throughout, fighting to make sense of the moment just as you are. The museum also features stories of heroes on that day, like Capt. Patrick “Paddy” Brown of Ladder Company 3, one of the first responders to reach the towers who perished as he continued to climb the stairs of the North Tower, clearing the way for the injured.

The helmet of New York Firefighter Capt. Patrick John Brown, a first responder killed in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.Photo by Michael Lane Smith

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum brought me closer to the survivors, the families of victims, and those who answered the call of duty to serve and protect on that day. While no one could ever be placed in their shoes, the experience the museum delivers is one that will bring you close to the love, brokenness, and healing that has been present in the last 14 years. The gravity of the events of that day I thought I understood proved heavier than I could have imagined.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum provides special opportunities for those who visit, including a recording studio to catalogue your memories so others can hear your story. Families of the victims are granted special access to a family room upstairs, a place for comfort and quiet, as well as the human remains repository, which stores the yet unidentified victims’ remains. “They’ll always be part of this,” Director of Communications Anthony Guido told Task & Purpose.

Active-duty and retired members of the U.S. military receive free access to the museum along with families of victims, and 9/11 rescue and recovery workers. U.S. military veterans are offered discounted access.

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