Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

Regarding the weather, my second day in New York was the same as the first, one of those perfect early summer days with a deep blue sky and little humidity. The day began with a gentle sea breeze on my face as I gazed at the lady of Liberty from the deck of the Staten Island ferry: that enduring emblem of the New World with her gold-plated torch shining in the sun. The day ended on a more sombre note with the golden afternoon sun casting a long shadow before me as I walked away from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

New York has an uneasy vibe and energy. Immigrants continue to seek a place like New York that frees them from oppressive governments, but attacks on ‘the land of the free’ are turning this U.S. city, in particular, into a watchful and wary one. I was told: “Don’t hold anyone’s gaze on the subway”, “Be ready for undignified security searches, and not just in airports”. I can already recommend walking rather than taking the grimy subterranean rail network, but that’s not always practical. And yet for all this uneasiness, New York is a city that openly remembers its tragic human losses.

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My most poignant memory of the official memorial to the destruction and death that came from the skies on 11 September 2001 is the immediate sense of physical and human loss that I felt when I first approached the site of the Twin Towers, now gone. Two square waterfall pits with smaller central pits in the centre suck the water into a seemingly fathomless underground void. They are representative of the footprints of the two towers, their collapse and the magnitude of human loss.

This museum begins above ground in a spacious, light-filled and airy foyer with timber floors that reminds me of an open Scandinavian design (not surprisingly, I found out that there were Norwegian architects involved). Light yields to darkness as we are ferried into a narrow passageway, and here it all comes flooding back—that day with its brilliant blue sky over New York. Visitors come face to face with vertical panels hanging from the ceiling printed with words expressing initial shock in multiple languages. There is a din of voices jabbering the same words. A map on the wall recalls the changes to the flight paths made by the hijackers. This is the beginning of repetition for visitors, who, throughout the exhibition relive, again and again, each of the four attacks in detail via various perspectives: human and material.

The passage finally opens out onto a balcony with a stunning view of the cavernous space below called the Foundation Hall, which exposes the original steel foundations of the old World Trade Centre. This is an extraordinarily sophisticated exhibition space with juxtapositions of sound, silence, darkness, light, and now, depth.

The spaces in the ‘educational’ rooms are jam-packed with spectacular exhibits that include mundane personal objects salvaged from the rubble (glasses, watches, keys, wallets) but focus on the need to satisfy modern-day desire for technological display. What concerns me most is the increasing popularity of presenting a museum ‘experience’ that mimics the emotive, and often manipulative, power of today’s cinematic devices—this became tiresome . . . for me. The repetition, the highly visual displays, and the movement through various educational rooms, exhausted me physically and emotionally—I know it affected others similarly, if stony faces, the blowing of noses and wiping of eyes are reliable indicators. I could give a few examples of the responses I witnessed, but I won’t.

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As visitors walk down a ramp that leads to the foundations there are huge remnants of twisted and distorted façade steel hanging down the vast walls like sculptural pieces. As one descends there is an art installation on the supporting wall by artist Spencer Finch (born 1962) called Trying to Remember the Colo[u]r of the Sky on That September Morning. The art work is composed of 2,983 individual watercolour drawings, each a distinct attempt by the artist to remember the colour of the sky on the morning of 11 September 2001. This commemorates the people killed in the attacks of September 11 2001 and 26 February 1993 (the World Trade Centre bombing), every square a unique shade of blue. Accordingly, Finch’s work centres on the idea of memory, and even though every individual remembers such a public event differently, there is a shared common reference. The letters of the quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”) were forged out of the remnant World Trade Centre steel by Tom Joyce (born 1956). Classicists are unhappy that the quote has been taken out of context, but it is still a powerful message here. Pictures of the victims covering the walls attest to that.

IMG_7356What also struck me was the bravery of first responders. The courage of fire-fighters at the scene is given a visual tribute in a spectacular relief on the wall of a building across the road from the memorial: 343 died that day. Inside the museum, the tragedy surrounding the battered Ladder Company 3 fire-truck on display was undeniably affecting, judging by the crowds that stood before it. Assigned to aid in the evacuation of civilians from the North Tower on 9/11, members of the New York Fire Department, Ladder Company 3, reached the 35th floor by 9.21am, but 11 firemen were killed when the North Tower collapsed at 10.28am.

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This 9/11 exhibition has stimulated lively discussion about the ethics of memorialising a nation’s human tragedy in such a monumental public exhibition. In particular, there has been much criticism of the inclusion of a room devoted to ‘The Rise of al-Qaeda’, which covers the origins of the terrorist attacks, its history and Islamic radicalism. Other questions arise: Is it appropriate for a memorial museum to have a shop? Should it charge an entry fee? However, in my opinion, this museum as an exhibition space is incredibly impressive, and as a memorial, the material is thoughtfully presented, if confronting and repetitious. It is a welcome tribute to those innocents who died as a result of the inhumanity of terrorism.

There’s another New York memorial, one that honours the celebrated life of songwriter and singer, John Lennon, who was shot dead in 1980 at the entrance of his home in the Dakota building: a simple mosaic embedded in the footpath at the south-west end of Central Park features the word ‘IMAGINE’. This memorial is called ‘Strawberry Fields’ and sits peacefully beneath the outstretched branches of surrounding elm trees on a gentle rise in the ground.

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In 1883 poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, ‘The New Colossus’, in honour of Liberty Enlightening the World (aka the Statue of Liberty).

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

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