National 9/11 Memorial & Museum
This site in the heart of Lower Manhattan, New York
, is one of the world's top dark-tourism attractions. In fact it is one of the most visited and most talked about tourist sites of any kind. And despite all the controversy it has attracted, there is no doubt that the end result is outstanding. The museum in particular has to rank amongst the most impressive of any dark-themed museum ever established anywhere.
Even before the dust had settled after 9/11 it quickly became apparent that there would have to be some form of memorial at the site of the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
What form this should have, who would be responsible for what, where the funding should come from, and many further such questions were the subject of prolonged discussions and controversy. Rarely in history has there been more debate about a memorial.
One controversy concerned the placement of the unidentified remains of over a thousand victims in the bedrock at the bottom level of the Ground Zero
site, i.e. practically within the museum's grounds. While some found this the most appropriate location, others opposed the idea. It furthermore opened a flank for critics who argue that this makes the site a tomb as well as a memorial and museum, and that hence the holding of a VIP cocktail party for major donors to the museum is inappropriate (but it has happened), as is the presence of a souvenir shop inside the museum (see below).
However, this is not the place to go into details about all those controversies and debates. You can find tons of info about all that elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that in the end it took 10 years to complete the memorial and it cost more money than any other memorial ever conceived before. But once it was completed and opened to the public it became an instant hit, so to speak.
Within the first two years since its opening in 2011 (in time for the tenth anniversary of the attacks), the memorial received a staggering 10 million plus visitors! By the end of 2015 the total figure had gone up to over 23 million!
Initially, this required tight crowd control measures. Visitors required tickets to access the site, which mostly had to be booked online in advance, though a certain contingent was also held back for walk-in visitors on the day and given away on a first-come-first-served basis. The tickets were free, though. Meanwhile the ticket regime for the memorial grounds has been lifted.
The associated 9/11 museum
took longer to complete. It opened its doors to the public in May 2014. Despite the rather steep admission fee, the museum has also proved a success. By the end of 2015, some 4 million visitors had come to see it. Here, an advance ticketing regime remains in place (see under access & costs
What there is to see: A lot, both at the memorial above ground, which is more symbolic, and especially inside the vast museum underground.
The key elements of the National 9/11 Memorial are the two “Reflecting Absence” ponds, the North Pond and the South Pond. These occupy the exact footprints of the respective North and South Towers of the destroyed World Trade Center (WTC). Artificial waterfalls cascade into the ponds from all four sides, and in the centre of the square ponds is a smaller square opening through which the water disappears (to be recycled back to feed the waterfalls).
Along the bronze parapets surrounding the reflecting pools with their waterfalls, the ca. 3000 names of the victims
are inscribed (or rather: stencil-cut into the metal). These are not arranged alphabetically, but by a complicated algorithm taking into account relationships amongst the victims, e.g. what floor they were on, their employer or other affiliation (e.g. first responder unit), and such like. The memorial's website has a special “name finder” search function. In one corner of the North Pond, the victims of the 1993 bomb attack on the WTC are also remembered.
The rest of the area in between and around the two ponds is designed like a landscaped garden with groves of white oak trees, interspersed with paved spaces where people can gather or sit and contemplate quietly.
There is also one extra-special tree of a different kind, the so-called “survivor tree”. This is a callery pear tree that originally stood in the WTC plaza and was discovered after the Twin Towers' collapse, badly damaged and singed but not quite dead. It was recovered and transferred for rehabilitation and eventually replanted on this site, again a healthy, leaf-sprouting tree.
While the memorial is a more or less abstract space for reflection, memory and contemplation, the National 9/11 Museum
is the premier institution telling the complete story of 9/11
(as well as touching upon immediately related topics). It is vast and intense. One of the absolute top-notch dark-themed museums in the world.
Most of the museum is underground, only the entrance level is housed in an above-ground pavilion of shiny silver metal cladding and glass.
Once you've negotiated the queues and ticket checking regime, and made your way to the first set of stairs leading down to the exhibition spaces proper, you pass a pair of the type of fork-shaped pillars from the base of the WTC (somewhat shortened to fit into this space). Next to this is a large photo showing the Twin Towers in their full former glory (complete with the sphere sculpture in the centre of the plaza between the towers which is now at Battery Park
Downstairs the museum space is subdivided into a general space around the towers' footprints, while inside the footprints are the two main exhibitions, one about the victims called “Memorial Exhibition” housed in the base of the South Tower, and a more conventional “Historical Exhibition” in the base of the North Tower.
You descend down into the depths of the former Ground Zero
, partly along ramps that recreate the ramps used in both the original construction of the Twin Towers as well as in the recovery and clearing of the Ground Zero debris. Along the way video installations create images from the day of the attacks. Traditional text-and-photo panels provide more background info and basic facts.
You then come to a large balcony overlooking the so-called “Foundation Hall”. It's a huge space several stories high. To the left you see the original concrete “slurry wall”, or 'retaining wall', which was built around the base of the towers to hold back groundwater as well as seeping water from the Hudson River (before the neighbouring World Financial Center was built, the WTC stood close to the banks of the river).
Dotted around the hall are various exhibits visitors will get to after going through the other exhibitions. But one that already stands out – and is explained on info panels on the balcony, is the so called “Last Column standing”. This was the final piece of the WTC's foundation steel columns from the site which until then had served as a kind of impromptu memorial within the recovery/construction site, with several signatures and tributes painted onto the steel by recovery workers, first responders and volunteers as well as victims' relatives.
Moving further along the ramp you pass a large piece of steel girders from the North Tower attached to a wall (explained later) as well as the approximate place of the 1993 WTC bombing. Just a bit further along, a projection onto the outer wall shows a recreation of the missing notes that were posted onto the fence of St Paul's Chapel (see Ground Zero
) and elsewhere all over New York
in the aftermath of 9/11
The final stretch of stairs/escalators down to the bottom level lead along one of the largest exhibits: the so-called “survivor stairs”. This flight of stairs used to lead down from the North Tower's upper plaza to the street level on Vesey Street. Hundreds of people escaped from the tower down this staircase. And as the stairs partly survived the North Tower's collapse they were preserved and eventually moved to the museum as this special artefact.
Now at the lowest level of the museum you proceed towards the former South Tower's footprint. Along the wall opposite it is the huge “National 9/11 Flag
” – apparently a US flag that was originally hung from a building directly adjacent to “Ground Zero
” and later repaired and displayed in various places across the USA (including Oklahoma City
At the far end of the corridor next to the South Tower footprint section is another piece of mangled steel – it's the counterpart to that seen earlier from the ramp. The two pieces from what used to be the outer facade of steel of the North Tower were identified to have come from right at the centre of the impact zone between floors 93 and 98 at which flight 11 crashed into the WTC. A chart and photo from the impact zone illustrates the original position of the steel on the stricken building. Look closely and you can even see, just left of the centre of the impact zone, a person holding on to another steel column exposed to the open by the impact ... obviously with no chance of rescue. I found this image encapsulated the tragedy of the North Tower more than any other.
Inside of what was the South Tower's footprint is the Memorial Exhibition, also referred to as “In Memoriam”. A “Wall of Faces” is composed of portrait shots of all the almost 3000 victims who lost their lives in the attacks. In addition some personal items are on display, and interactive screens provide more background information about individual victims.
Another section in this space provides room for temporary special exhibitions. When I was there a collection of photographs was on display which were taken all over the USA
and in some way or another related to different kinds of “grass-roots” level commemoration of 9/11
(be it wall murals, home-made tribute monuments, or even tattoos).
Around the outer wall of the South Tower footprint you can see many remnants of the tower's foundations, such as the cut-off bases of the square steel columns that connected the structure to the bedrock below. The technical aspects of the WTC's unique architecture are explained in some elaborate detail on panels, diagrams and photos.
There is the chance to go and watch some film or video in a special theatre – but you had to queue up for those, and whenever I passed the lines were so long (more than two batches of the theatre's seating capacity) that it would have taken ages to get in. So I gave up on this. (Additional films and live talks and other events also take place in the auditorium in the museum pavilion – but I've not seen/attended any of these either yet.)
En route to the footprint of the North Tower and the exhibition housed within you pass some of the most dramatic large exhibits
of the museum. One is a section of the antenna tower that stood atop the North Tower (cf. Newseum
!), another is one of the elevator motors also recovered from the rubble.
The very largest of all displays is the FDNY truck of Ladder Company 3, badly mangled from falling debris. All of the team's first responders were in the North Tower, still on their way up, when the building collapsed. Needless to say, none survived.
You then get to the Historical Exhibition, which really is the heart of the educational, informative part of the museum, and thus the most museum-like in character. And it is absolutely excellent.
The exhibition is divided into three parts, “The Events of the Day”, “Before 9/11” and “After 9/11”. The first one of these is naturally the main one.
This part, which recounts the unfolding of the tragedy of 9/11, is further subdivided into a series of timelines that provide a general structure. In addition to artefacts, the exhibition relies heavily on quotes, video footage and audio recordings, including heartbreaking phone messages from people on board the hijacked planes as well as from people trapped inside the stricken towers.
Amongst the many artefacts
on display some are more immediately dramatic than others – such as the fragment of the fuselage of one of the hijacked planes, a section with a passenger window (cf. 9/11 Tribute Museum
!), recovered after the disaster.
Other items are smaller – but also tell powerful stories. Amongst them, for instance, was a handwritten note thrown out of the window by a person trapped in one of the Towers.
One small item that got to me in particular was the display of a Deutsche Bank ID card. That is because I have a cousin who at the time of the 9/11 attacks worked for the Deutsche Bank in New York
. It turned out, though, that he wasn't at the WTC at the time the planes hit and thus survived unscathed. But it made me think … it could have been different.
The exhibition is designed in such a way that you can either go through it rather quickly, relying only on the shorter sound-bite-sized audio elements and visual elements, or go into detail and read longer texts, use interactive screens and audio stations with lengthier recordings.
In addition there are semi-separate “alcoves” for additional info. This included one that had a special warning at the entrance about the graphic nature of the video footage shown inside … namely of those people who jumped to their deaths from the WTC rather than being burned alive inside. This is seen by many as one of the most brutally tragic aspects of the whole 9/11 story.
The warning sign did have its deterring effect. I overheard a father explicitly forbidding his son from entering this section. I did go in, but the footage shown is not actually that terribly disturbing. It was all already familiar footage and only showed falling bodies filmed from a distance, but nothing worse than that. (Not that this isn't terrible enough – but at least they left out any reference to, let alone images of, the inevitable consequences of the falls at their end …)
In addition to the events at the WTC in New York
, the other sites of the 9/11
attacks are also covered, i.e. the Pentagon
, Washington D.C.
, as well as Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the place where hijacked flight 93 was brought down. There's a transcript from the black box flight recorder capturing the final words of the hijackers (translated into English) before the plane came down. Chilling stuff.
Other recordings from the planes are actually played as audio files, including a message from a flight attendant giving details of the hijackers as well as a recording of the announcement that hijacker Mohammed Atta made to the passengers aboard the plane which he would later steer into the WTC's North Tower (obviously he didn't announce that to the passengers, but rather gave them some diversionary story to calm them down).
The section about “Before 9/11” involved more info about the planning and construction of the Twin Towers (on display here is the original architects' model of the WTC) as well as the bombing of the underground car park of the WTC in 1993 – the precursor of 9/11 in that this earlier Al-Quaida attack too had been intended to make the building above collapse, but even though some six people were killed and substantial damage was inflicted, the explosion wasn't anywhere near big enough to bring the towers down … yet.
The section about “After 9/11
” covers the search for the missing, the international media response, DNA tracking of victims and also the issue of memorialization. For instance there is a copy of an official questionnaire sheet which explicitly asked the question: “Should Ground Zero become a tourist attraction? Yes or No” (as if that could ever have been prevented – see under “Ground Zero
”) Apparently this was indeed a poll whose results were to be presented to then mayor of New York City
, Rudolph Giuliani.
It is also in this section that the famous cross made from WTC steel is now displayed (see again under “Ground Zero
” for a photo
of it when it was still in its original above-ground place at the site).
Possibly the most drastic artefact on display here is a huge chunk of what is termed “composite” – i.e. the compacted mass of material compressed by the collapse of the towers and the thousands of tonnes of steel that accumulated on top. It is likely that this brown rusty mass of metal bits and indistinguishable materials also includes pulverized fragments of human remains … It provides a faint impression of what a difficult and terrible job it must have been to search for body parts or other fragments to identify victims from this compacted “composite” mass.
One section turned to the many conspiracy theories about 9/11 (mainly that it was an “inside job”), which by this point, after all the evidence on display in the exhibition's previous sections, hardly have a chance of sounding even minimally credible.
Another post-9/11 issue is of course that of ongoing terrorism
, and references to the Bali bombings
, the 7/7 bombings in London
and the attacks in Mumbai, India
, are presented.
The theme is picked up again as you exit the Historical Exhibition into the Foundation Hall. Here, one display cabinet has a brick from Osama Bin Laden's compound
at Abbottabad in Pakistan, where he was killed by US
special forces in 2011. The house has meanwhile been completely demolished, but this brick was saved by a journalist who had nicked it from the site as a souvenir and later donated it to this museum.
Now back in the Foundation Hall you can inspect the slurry wall again, and from closer up, and also view the artefacts dotted around the floor of this big hall, of which the Last Column is the centre piece. Interactive screens provide more information.
Amongst the other big exhibits on display is another huge piece of violently bent steel from the WTC, and, contrasting maximally with this, the last and only known windowpane from the WTC that survived without being shattered. It's from the 82nd floor of the South Tower and came to rest as part of the iconic structure of WTC steel facade that was left poking up above the rubble after the collapse.
Incidentally, I asked one of the museum attendants who were on hand to answer questions (and give impromptu presentations), if it was ever considered whether to preserve at least part of that so massively iconic structure. But she reckoned that at that point, the recovery workers were only concerned with clearing the site to make it safe, without any concern for later memorialization yet. It may also have played a part that all that steel was about the only material still of any monetary value (but I abstained from openly venturing this as a theory for why it was all so quickly removed).
Eventually you make your way back upstairs to the exit from the museum. En route you can inspect the huge museum shop
. The inclusion of such a souvenir shop at the memorial site had caused quite a stir and outrage on the part of some of the families of 9/11
Yet the shop doesn't overdo it with questionable items, really. OK, some of the hoodies, jewellery or fluffy FDNY teddy bears may be a bit borderline. But allegedly every item in the shop gets carefully considered and approved for its appropriateness. And of course nobody is forced to look in the shop at all.
All in all, the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum is unquestionably a massively impressive attraction, one of the world's best dark-tourism sites and with a commodification
second to none. A hundred percent recommended. And do take your time
! It deserves far more of it than many “regular” visitors grant it.
at the former location of the WTC Twin Towers (“Ground Zero
”) in Lower Manhattan, New York City
. The memorial occupies the entire area between Fulton Street to the north, Liberty Street to the south, West Street to the (surprise!) west, and Greenwich Street to the east. The museum is located between the two footprints of the towers, now referred to as North Pond and South Pond, near the Greenwich Street side of the area. The official address is: 180 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10007.
Access and costs:
quite easy to get to; access to the memorial is free, but the museum is quite expensive, though not disproportionately so by US
Details: getting to the memorial site is easiest by public transport. i.e. subway or bus (M5 or 20/22). Due to severe lack of parking spaces in the area, driving is not recommended.
Several subway lines provide good connections to other parts of New York
. The PATH train service even provides access to New Jersey and has its World Trade Center station right on site. Other stations in the vicinity include Chambers Street (A, C, 1,2 and 3 trains), Fulton St (A, C, J, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5), Park Pl (2, 3), Cortland St (1, R). But soon the all-new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which is currently nearing completion, will make transfers between all these 11 subway lines as well as PATH much easier.
It can be expected that pedestrian access to the National 9/11 Memorial will also be improved, once this mega-station is finished. Until then there are currently four access points: one at the intersection of West Street and Fulton Street, one at the opposite end at the intersection of Liberty Street and Greenwich Street, one at the intersection of West Street and Liberty Street and another one at the intersection of Greenwich Street and Fulton Street (with slightly different opening times). Just follow the signs.
Admission to the Memorial alone is free.
Opening times of the Memorial: daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Opening times of the Museum: daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Friday and Saturday to 9 p.m. – last entry two hours before closing!
Admission to the Museum is NOT free: the regular adult ticket currently (as of early 2016) costs 24 USD, concession prices apply for seniors, US veterans and college students (18 USD), as well as youths between 7 and 17 years of age (15 USD). Members, 9/11 family members, as well as rescue and recovery workers are allowed free admission.
On Tuesdays there is general free admission from 5 to 8 p.m., on a first-come-first-served basis, beginning at 4 p.m. and finishing at 6 p.m. (not pre-bookable!).
It is advised that visitors obtain their tickets in advance by purchasing them online from the museum's website (911memorial.org). You will have to specify a time slot and are advised to be at the entrance (or in the separate queue – museum attendants will direct you) at least 15 minutes prior to your allocated time. Latecomers may be refused entry. If you do not have a pre-purchased ticket, expect to wait in line for a considerable amount of time.
You can also arrange to join guided tours, both in the museum (60 minutes) and in the memorial grounds (45 minutes), for which extra charges apply (museum tour + admission: 44 USD, memorial grounds tour + museum admission: 39 USD).
You can also download special apps produced for the memorial/museum (free) to help you prepare for your visit. Their website also has plenty more info in digital form. Do check it out.
Check the general rules for visitors on the museum's website too!
One rule to be especially aware of is that no photography is permitted in either the Memorial Exhibition or the Historical Exhibition – and there are plenty of museum attendants about to ensure that this rule is enforced. Elsewhere within the museum you are free to snap away.
In general: remember that this is an immensely popular site, so expect crowds as well as crowd control measures both outside and inside the museum!
The museum suggests an “average visiting time” of “approximately” two hours
. That must have been gauged with an attention span in mind that is rather at the short end of the scale. And it probably can be done in that short time if you only scan through the museum superficially and only take in the sound-bite size commodification
but none of the more in-depth material.
But for anybody with more than just a passing interest in the subject matter of this premier museum, the two-hour estimate is totally unrealistic.
I had already spent more than four hours inside the museum and was still far from through the main historical exhibition, when I realized I had to bear in mind an appointment I had made for the evening. So I asked a museum attendant how much longer I would need to get to the end of the exhibition. “About half an hour” was the answer. Nearly 30 minutes later I was still a long way from the exit, so I had to speed up and do the final sections a bit more hastily to make sure I wouldn't be late for my appointment.
I reckon that if you really want to explore the museum's exhibitions exhaustively, you actually need a whole day. If you wanted to go through the entire archives of recorded material (including hundreds of hours of aural testimonies and videos) you would probably need several weeks …
The latter is a superb add-on to a visit to the official National Memorial/Museum, especially their guided walking tours with 9/11
survivors, rescue workers, eyewitnesses or relatives of victims, who all have their own very personal stories to tell. It greatly enhances the more abstract, factual museum and provides a powerfully intense encounter with the stories of 9/11 “told by those who were there” (as the Tribute Museum
's general slogan goes).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under New York City
- 9-11 Memorial 1 - North Pond
- 9-11 Memorial 2 - plunging water
- 9-11 Memorial 3 - rainbow
- 9-11 Memorial 4- survivor tree
- 9-11 Memorial 5 - rules and plan
- 9-11 Museum 01 - atrium
- 9-11 Museum 02 - steel columns
- 9-11 Museum 03 - North Tower steel
- 9-11 Museum 04 - incorporated into the memorial
- 9-11 Museum 05 - twisted steel
- 9-11 Museum 05b - where the pieces came from
- 9-11 Museum 06 - wish for the future
- 9-11 Museum 07 - survivor stairs
- 9-11 Museum 08 - bottom of the stairs severely damaged
- 9-11 Museum 09 - foundation steel stumps
- 9-11 Museum 10 - big flag
- 9-11 Museum 11 - bit of the North Tower antenna mast
- 9-11 Museum 12 - part of an elevator engine
- 9-11 Museum 13 - damaged NYFD ladder vehicle
- 9-11 Museum 14 - hall with the last column
- 9-11 Museum 14 - main exhibition rules
- 9-11 Museum 15 - slurry wall
- 9-11 Museum 16 - bent steel
- 9-11 Museum 17 - last intact window pane
- 9-11 Museum 18 - brick from the Bin Laden compound
- 9-11 Museum 19 - iconic sight gone, not saved
- 9-11 Museum 20 - seen from the north-western corner of North Pond