What the 9/11 Museum Remembers, and What It Forgets

In 1993, Myrna Weinstein worked on the sixty-first floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center as a corporate trainer in the human-resources department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. On February 26th of that year, she was giving a course on stress management. Her class had broken for…

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In 1993, Myrna Weinstein worked on the sixty-first floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center as a corporate trainer in the human-resources department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. On February 26th of that year, she was giving a course on stress management. Her class had broken for lunch, when, at 12:18 P.M., a cell of terrorists detonated twelve hundred pounds of explosives in a rental van in the building’s underground parking garage, more than sixty floors beneath her. The explosion shook the building and knocked out the public-address system. Weinstein and her colleagues had no idea what had happened. When the office began to fill with smoke, they decided to evacuate.

Outside, it was a snowy day. Of the at least thirteen thousand or so people working in the building that afternoon, most had stayed in for lunch. They began to cram into the World Trade Center’s three emergency stairwells. The blast had taken out the emergency generators; the lights went out, and the ventilation system wasn’t functioning. In the dark, Weinstein had to feel for each step. She didn’t know whether she was descending into a fire or whether she would be overcome with smoke inhalation. She finally reached the mezzanine level and exited onto the plaza, where she immediately slipped on ice and fell on her knees. She saw it as a message from God, telling her to be grateful.

In her role with H.R., Weinstein often talked to the building’s engineers, and she knew, from them, that the World Trade Center had structural redundancies to keep it standing in the event of an accident or attack. The explosion opened up a crater a hundred and thirty feet across and five or six stories deep, but the building stood. An engineer had once told her that it would stay up even if a plane struck the building—the towers had been constructed to withstand a collision with a Boeing 707. After the 1993 bombing, some of Weinstein’s co-workers asked to be relocated. She continued working at the tower.

By 2001, she had been promoted. She was ten floors above her old job, managing computer trainings. On September 11th, at 8:46 A.M., she was walking toward the elevators to see whether the classrooms on the seventy-eighth floor were ready for her when a plane struck more than fifteen stories above. The building tilted to an angle that she’d never felt before. She looked out a window and saw debris falling, then headed straight for the stairwell. It was as crowded as it had been in 1993, but it was a cocoon, insulated from explanation; once again, the people there had no idea, at first, what was going on. Someone entered from a lower floor and said that the second tower had also been struck. Weinstein knew, then, that it was another attack.

New Yorkers are used to slowly shuffling up and down crowded stairways at subway stations, and Weinstein didn’t see any pushing or shoving. As in 1993, people helped one another. Co-workers aided their colleagues with disabilities. When Weinstein’s legs began to cramp, and she stopped to rest, a stranger asked whether she needed assistance. This coöperation is something that she likes to emphasize when she tells her story to visitors to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, where she has volunteered as a docent since shortly after it opened, in 2014.

Making her way down the stairs, Weinstein gripped the railing and tried to ignore the discomfort in her legs. She reached the mezzanine, but it looked like a war zone, and so she kept going. She got to the lobby, which had been flooded by the sprinkler system; an engineer she knew took her arm to keep her from slipping. Outside, police officers urged her to leave the area, and she walked toward her brother’s office, a few blocks east. The horror that she saw on the faces of people on the street convinced her not to look back. At an intersection nearby, she saw an object that looked like an engine cordoned off by yellow police tape. She reached her brother’s office, and stayed there until 11:30 A.M., by which time both towers had collapsed. She reëmerged outside, into a blizzard of debris, and walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, still in her heels.

Weinstein retired from the Port Authority in 2002. She stopped going to the high floors of tall buildings. She spent the next ten years caring for her elderly mother. After her mother died, she saw a notice that the memorial at Ground Zero was looking for volunteers, and she thought that working there might be a way of honoring her co-workers who had died. A friend suggested that she would be a good docent for the new museum.

One of the first things a visitor sees on the descent into the exhibition halls, seventy feet underground, is part of a slurry wall that once surrounded the buildings, holding back the Hudson River. The wall no longer serves its practical function—another was built behind it—but the floor is often damp with seepage, where the city meets bedrock. On her first visit, Weinstein could smell a faint mustiness, and the odor, combined with the images and sounds of the exhibits—the recorded voices of panic and the clanking alarms of the first responders—assaulted her senses. But she also found sources of solace. Among the photographs of people who had escaped from the building were faces of those she recognized.

As a docent, Weinstein doesn’t recount her own experience, or say much about the fifteen years that she worked in the World Trade Center, unless a visitor’s question prompts a story about it. The most common of these is “Where were you on 9/11?” Visitors usually ask that because they want to talk about where they were, too. People also ask Weinstein how she could work at the museum every day, but she comes in only once a week. She carries a packet of tissues in her pocket for visitors, and sometimes for herself. Nobody has ever asked her about the motivations of the men who carried out the attack, but they sometimes ask her whether she is angry. She tells them that she isn’t angry, that she is still just sad.

The 9/11 Museum was rated the No. 1 museum in New York City by TripAdvisor in 2019. Three million people visited that year, but most of them were from places farther away than New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. Weinstein thinks that locals are reluctant to visit because the event is still too raw for them. But there are likely other reasons, too.

From the beginning, family members of the dead balked at the museum’s commercial aspects, such as the entry fee—now twenty-six dollars—and the gift shop, where N.Y.P.D. and F.D.N.Y. T-shirts are sold alongside mugs and keychains that bear the words “Never Forget.” (The museum has received government grants but is private, and relies on ticket sales and donations to stay afloat.) The memorial aboveground, with its falling waters and dark pools, where flowers are placed in the grooves of the names of the dead on their birthdays, is perhaps better suited to mourning.

When the museum opened, Philip Kennicott, the architecture critic at the Washington Post, described it as “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing on every television screen in America.” Like other critics, he found the museum’s religious metaphors oppressive. Holland Cotter, in his review for the Times, wrote, “The prevailing story in the museum, as in a church, is framed in moral terms, as a story of angels and devils.” Prior to the museum’s opening, an advisory panel of interfaith clergy members took issue with a seven-minute documentary called “The Rise of Al Qaeda.” The panel asserted, in an open letter, that the video “may very well leave viewers with the impression that all Muslims bear some collective guilt or responsibility,” and that it could lead to bigotry or even violence. One of the panel members, Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, an imam at Masjid Manhattan, resigned from the panel in protest. The video has never been changed.

In the years after the attacks, New Yorkers saw their city’s tragedy used to justify discrimination against Muslims, and also mass surveillance, torture, secret prisons, and two wars, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed. In this context, it is difficult to visit the museum simply as a way of honoring the dead and learning their stories. A new documentary, “The Outsider,” chronicles the debates that took place, when the museum was being planned, about what sort of story it would tell. Some of the discussions documented in the movie seem like reasonable arguments over the presentation of difficult material, such as a recording of a 911 call from someone trapped above the impact zone, or footage of people who jumped out the buildings. But the film presents these arguments as clashes between those who favored nuance and context—typified by the titular outsider, Michael Shulan, who served as the museum’s first creative director—and those who were allegedly wary of controversy and complexity, such as, in the movie’s telling, the museum’s current chief executive, Alice Greenwald.

Reached recently by phone, Shulan told me that he was turned into the title character of the movie without his knowledge, and that, while he had real disagreements with his colleagues, the tone of those conflicts had been mischaracterized. Tom Hennes, the founder of the design firm Thinc, who also worked on the museum in its planning stages, agreed that the conflict was exaggerated in the film, but said that he did have issues with certain choices the museum made. Hennes had worked as an adviser on Freedom Park, in Pretoria, South Africa, a memorial to the people who died fighting apartheid. That project had demanded an open conversation about national identity that people in the U.S. seemed to resist. He told me, “We had fallen into, to quote George W. Bush, a ‘with us or against us’ frame of mind, that collapsed the space of discourse and did not allow much light into the question of, How do we respond? Who are we as a nation? Who do we want to be in the world?”

What the documentary portrays as a rift between Greenwald and Shulan was really, Hennes said, a broader tension about how much definitive “museum voice” the institution would ultimately use—that is, whether it would raise questions and leave space for contemplation or dictate to the visitor what the day meant. Hennes had hoped for less “museum voice” and more content presented in the first person, he told me. Though Hennes designed the museum’s exhibitions, another firm, Layman Design, was brought in to complete what’s called the historical exhibition, a set of rooms with more objects and more explanation than the rest of the museum. Hennes had hoped that the museum might broach some of the political implications of the day in a section of the historical exhibition called “Aftermath.” A proposal for a montage of politicians using the site for political ends was dropped in favor of a video about the recovery workers—a legitimate choice, Hennes said, but one that hides a troubling legacy of the event. “You need to have exhibits that provoke, and they don’t have to attack, they don’t have to make judgments,” Hennes said.

Steven Rosenbaum, a co-director of “The Outsider,” suggested that, if nothing else, the movie, which has been widely reviewed, has given people permission to be more critical about sentimental portrayals of September 11th. He believes that New Yorkers are “attracted to complexity,” and that the museum “is the opposite of that.” “It’s simplistic, it’s Islamophobic, it’s racist, it’s a whole series of things that anybody who goes there feels,” he said. ​​Greenwald, for her part, said that the filmmakers “do not seem to understand that everything we do here must honor the commemorative nature of the site. They seem to prefer a museum that is critical of U.S. foreign policy with less emphasis on what happened here.” Greenwald used to work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she told me that one challenge with the 9/11 Museum was that it was built and designed before the event had passed from memory to history—a moment it is reaching only now, she said. She argued that the museum’s live programming has a much broader focus than the exhibitions themselves. She also wants the museum to convey how New York and the nation came together following the attack, she told me. “We were in it together, we were compassionate with one another, we hugged strangers on the street, people volunteered for public service,” she said, adding, “It was far too short-lived.” I asked whether it couldn’t also be said that 9/11 had brought out the worst in us, given that it was used to justify acts of violence, torture, and discrimination. “I don’t entirely disagree with you,” she said. “We’ve had C.I.A. directors here talking about ‘enhanced interrogation,’ programs that have focussed on the emergence of ISIS, and other topics. We’ve had those conversations. We look at that legacy, too.”

On a day this summer, I met Myrna Weinstein at the edge of the memorial pool on the former footprint of the south tower. After passing through the metal detectors, we entered an atrium where two steel columns loom against a wall of glass. From there, visitors begin a descent down a ramp meant to recall the one at the excavation site once the cleanup effort began. We walked past a photograph of the towers taken at 8:15 A.M. on September 11th, and a map of the Eastern Seaboard, with planes marking the locations and times of the crashes not only at the World Trade Center but also in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. We walked down a hall in which recorded voices played, a mix of oral histories and calls to 911 from witnesses trying to describe what they had seen.

A reflection of neighboring buildings is seen on a memorial pool, on the footprint of one of the former World Trade Center towers.

We descended further, into a hall for commemorative art, including memorial motorcycles donated to the museum and a transplanted firehouse door painted with the kind of mural that became common around New York City in the weeks and months after September 11th. A wall-sized mosaic of squares in shades of blue, by the artist Spencer Finch, features one square for every person who died in the attacks in 1993 and on September 11th, Weinstein explained, adding that the blues attempt to evoke the shade of the sky on the latter day. Amid the tiles is a quote from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” (Classical scholars have pointed out that this line, from the Aeneid, refers to soldiers who have just killed enemies while they slept, and might be more fitting for the hijackers than for their victims.) Behind the wall, closed to the public, are the on-site office of New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner, and the unidentified remains of the dead.

As a docent, Weinstein is often posted next to particular artifacts. She frequently works at “the survivor’s stairs,” which once led from the plaza onto Vesey Street. The stairs were protected by an overhang, and many people used them to escape the building. We looked at the damaged commemorative plaque of the 1993 attack and a crushed fire truck from Ladder Three, a station in the East Village that lost twelve firefighters, plus a captain and a lieutenant. Weinstein showed me the torn motor of an express elevator and a massive segment of the antenna that once stood atop the north tower. We looked at the posters of the missing that hung in the streets of lower Manhattan.

One darkened room, in which photography is forbidden, functions as a kind of database. The portraits of people who died are arranged on the wall in alphabetical order; touch-screen computers allow visitors to search for victims by name, place of work, or country of birth. Small display cases set into the walls contain objects donated by family members to represent their loved ones, like totems buried with the dead. These objects rotate in and out of the space, along with text, written by family members, regarding the person who was lost. On a recording, the names of the dead are read out loud, as they are at the memorial on each anniversary.

We reached the historical exhibition, which recounts the attacks minute by minute, with small breakaway areas that document the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and in Shanksville. “It was hard for me to come into this section,” Weinstein said, pausing before a photograph of a woman fleeing. “But, when I saw this lady, I thought, Ah, she got out.” It was someone she’d seen many times at work.

Weinstein has memorized a litany of details about the history of the World Trade Center and the day of its destruction. Her almost forensic understanding of the temperature of the fires in the building and how those fires affected the building’s steel frame speaks to the persistence of outlandish theories about what brought the towers down. Conspiracy theorists often visit the museum, eager to proclaim their opinions and primed to argue. Before the pandemic, Weinstein told me, she would often direct them to a recording booth where museumgoers were invited to share their thoughts and experiences, and would encourage them to say whatever they wanted in there.

Weinstein excels at sharing accounts of resilience, altruism, and luck. She tells the story of Jan Demczur, a window washer caught in an elevator above the fiftieth floor with five other passengers, who used the metal handle of his squeegee to pry open the elevator doors, punch a hole through the Sheetrock, and lead them to escape. (The handle of the squeegee is displayed in a glass box.) She describes Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter later known as “the man with the red bandanna” by the people he’d rescued, who helped lead more than a dozen people to a stairwell on the seventy-eighth floor before dying in the building’s collapse. Weinstein hopes that someday there will see an exhibition dedicated to the civilians who helped on September 11th and in the weeks that followed—including the construction workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, who did much of the cleanup, some of whom have suffered health complications in the intervening years. In 2019, the museum dedicated the Memorial Glade to rescue and recovery workers, but Weinstein is among those who think it could do more to include them in its story.

We reached a small room about the rise of Al Qaeda, painted a desert beige that recalled the yellow filters Hollywood likes to use when depicting the Middle East. Weinstein stopped. “If you want to learn about the terrorists, why they attacked the Trade Center, what was their credo, their fatwa, you can stay here, but I’ll meet you on the other side.” In the exhibit, the detention camps at Guantánamo Bay receive only cursory mention. The museum does not give substantial treatment to the widespread surveillance of mosques in New York and New Jersey by the N.Y.P.D. after September 11th, nor to the hate crimes suffered by Muslim and Sikh New Yorkers, nor to the failures of U.S. intelligence leading up to the attacks.

We visited a special exhibition on the killing and capture of Osama bin Laden, a supplement to a display of artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, which includes a brick from the complex where bin Laden had hidden, in Pakistan—which was brought to the U.S. by a reporter for Fox News—and a shirt worn by a member of the Navy SEAL Team 6, which carried out the assassination. Explanatory blocks of text were stylized to look like redacted government documents. There is also a special exhibition called “K-9 Courage,” which “honors the hundreds of dogs that participated in the response to the 9/11 attacks.” Although the museum planned an exhibit to commemorate the twentieth anniversary, it was scrapped after the pandemic cut severely into the museum’s revenue. It was going to be, as the Times put it, “a large anniversary exhibition examining music’s role in uniting Americans after 9/11 and other tragedies.”

At a recent panel discussion following a screening of “The Outsider,” Elizabeth Miller, who previously worked in the exhibitions department of the 9/11 Museum, described her frustrations with the museum’s curatorial decisions. Afterward, I asked her about her experience on the job. She told me she disagreed with the use of the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” in museum text. “I understand that the museum has to try to tread lightly,” she told me, “but why are we calling it ‘interrogation techniques’ when everyone else around the world calls it torture?” The museum eventually conceded to putting quotation marks around the term, she said.

Miller was six when her father, Doug Miller, a firefighter who worked with a rescue company in Staten Island, died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Her mother used to tell her that the event wouldn’t define them. When Miller went to college, she decided to study Middle Eastern history and Arabic, with a focus on Osama bin Laden. “I really immersed myself and it just taught me so much,” she told me, adding, “I don’t agree with him by any means, but everybody has some rationale in their brains, and, for me, just understanding that helped me to wrap my head around 9/11 and helped me move forward. And, then, studying the cultures, the religion, and the language brought me peace.”

Miller got her job at the museum in 2019. She loved her co-workers but noticed that their ideas would be dismissed if they fell outside the confines of the day itself, she said. (She recalled a rejected proposal for an exhibition about Little Syria, the community of Arabic-speaking Christian immigrants from the Middle East who, in the nineteenth century, settled in the neighborhood later occupied by the World Trade Center.) To Miller, the museum’s minimal treatment of Islamophobia seemed itself Islamophobic. She was laid off, along with many other museum employees, after the pandemic temporarily closed the museum. I asked whether she thought the museum was amenable to change. “I’m trying to be optimistic, but it doesn’t seem like they are going to change the name of the game,” she said.

“One of the ways we do truly honor those who have sacrificed is to try and make meaning of that sacrifice, not just in a rearward-looking direction,” Tom Hennes told me. “To say they sacrificed because it was an attack on American freedom or an attack on American imperialism or it was an attack on the American presence in the Middle East—any of those things you could probably find evidence to support,” he went on. “That’s less the point than what it is we’re going to do, in the present, about a country with a very complex relationship with the world, and about our own role in that, as Americans, about our own role as global citizens.”

A museum about the past inevitably expresses a vision for the future. Although the 9/11 Museum also tells the stories of the attacks on the Pentagon and of the United Airlines Flight 93, it might have been more accurate or appropriate to call the institution the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum. September 11th as an inflection point that reordered world politics and ushered in a new phase of American civic life is not seriously considered. If it were, the first exhibit on display would be the metal detectors at the entrance. I asked Weinstein what she hoped that the memory of September 11th would teach people who did not witness it firsthand. She mentioned the existence of evil in the world, and also the existence of people who do good, and how people can become victims of ideologies that are based on hate. Then she added, “And, if there’s a fire drill, you go to where you need to be, you don’t dawdle by your desk, you go to where they’re directing you to escape to a safe place, because it’s a dangerous world.”


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