The aims of the National September 11 Memorial Museum are hard to reconcile. This new institution is supposed to evoke terrible attacks and remember their victims, yet at the same time be a pragmatic building with the capacity to take in thousands of visitors day by day who, with curiosity sometimes bordering on the banal, are bound to see in the remains on display not a human tragedy, but a mythified historical fact. So it should not come as a surprise that the recent opening has sparked as much criticism as expectation.
Buried 21 meters deep – beneath the footprints of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, now turned into commemorative fountains –, the museum comes five years late and at a cost of US$700 million, far more than intended. Metaphorically the building designed by the local studio David Brody Bond is a hypogeum with only a crystalline pavilion designed by Snøhetta rising to the surface, and with innards harboring the bestiary of what was left of the tragedy: huge rusted pillars, wedding rings, fire trucks, even wrecks of the fuselage of one of the airplanes. But by sheltering 14,000 unidentified human remains, this underground space is also a literal hypogeum, which puts its decorum into question. Can a museum also be a cemetery? If so, is it right that visits end at a store selling T-shirts and other ‘souvenirs’ of the tragedy? The paradoxes reflect the difficulties involved in giving shape to memory, to the monument, in societies that make a spectacle even out of mourning.