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Preview the 'Emotionally Overwhelming' 9/11 Memorial Museum

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This Thursday, the long-awaited National September 11 Memorial Museum opens ceremonially. Next Wednesday, it opens to the general public. Although the museum's been set back, at the very least, by "boondoggles and inundation from Hurricane Sandy," Times art critic Holland Cotter is quick, and wise, to note in his review of the sanctified space that the decade-old events the museum pays tribute to are—on the individual and worldwide level—yet ongoing; a potential source of confusion in the museum's intent. But rather for Cotter, the events' ongoing nature served as an intent of purpose for the museum, which concerns itself with "investigation," not "summation". Here now, an inside angle at the National September 11 Memorial Museum through the words of one of its first guests.

1. On the museum: "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 ..."

2. "Debates over [the museum's] 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."

3. "The bulk of [the museum], some 110,000 square feet of gallery space, is 70 feet below ground, where the foundations of the towers met raw Manhattan schist."

4. On the act of moving from the museum's "neutral" above-ground atrium to its below-ground gallery, out of the realm of natural light: "Invisibility can make for strong drama. A descent into darkness is the stuff of suspense."

5. "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 ... [and] served as a multipurpose symbol of urban recovery, democracy, communal strength, the human spirit, not to mention the virtues of sound engineering."

6. "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."

7. "The commemorative display is, basically, the equivalent of a communal, life-honoring memorial service perpetually in progress."

8. "Repose is the last word you'd associate with the museum's other, larger exhibition, addressing that September day itself."

9. "The installation ... 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 ... For some reason, the largest objects—an intact fire truck with carefully folded hoses but a burned-out cab ... a storefront jeans display still covered with World Trade Center ashes—are the easiest to take, maybe because of their public identity ... 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 plexiglass. Infused with lost life, they make the experience of moving through this museum at once theatrical, voyeuristic and devotional.

10. "The prevailing story in the museum, as in a church, is framed in moral terms, as a story of angels and devils."

11. "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."

For the full, very-worth-it read, head on over to the New York Times.
· The 9/11 Story Told at Bedrock, Powerful as a Punch to the Gut [NYT]
· 9/11 Memorial Museum [official]
· All National September 11 Memorial & Museum coverage [Curbed]