Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
The site of the worst terrorist attack in the USA
prior to 9/11
. The target in the centre of Oklahoma City was a state government building which was half blown up by an enormous home-made truck bomb in 1995. The site has been converted into a large memorial ensemble and a state-of-the-art memorial museum is directly adjacent.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is a one-of-kind site – not only due to the scale of the atrocity that happened here, also for its political significance.
, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the worst terrorist attack to hit the USA
. The building was blown up by a massive "home-made" bomb, based on over two tons of fertilizer and other explosives, placed in a rental truck parked outside the building and detonated by time-delay fuse. The blast caused the whole front of the building to collapse, and 168 people were killed, including some 20 children in a day-care centre within the building, and hundreds more were injured.
Unlike 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing constituted entirely "internal" terrorism in more than one sense: firstly, the perpetrators were Americans, and secondly the reason was also an inner-American affair. The bombing was apparently carried out as an act of retaliation for the Waco disaster – when government forces laid siege to the Branch Davidians' sect compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in a fire killing around 80 people exactly two years previously on 19 April 1993. Gore Vidal's 2002 book "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" has interesting background material about the connection between the two incidents, but it would be going too far in this context to go into more detail here. Suffice it to say that in the typical American confusion of justice with revenge (cf. the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011), the main perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was executed (in 2001) before he could reveal more about his motives.
What is clear is that he was a veteran who had fought in the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990/91 and developed a profound hatred of federal government. Apparently he had connections to (or was member of) an underground militia movement.
The fact that he was caught at all was pure fluke – he was arrested in a routine check for driving without a licence and for unlawfully carrying a weapon. He was quickly connected to the bombing, though, and an unprecedented large-scale FBI investigation gradually unravelled the practical background and preparation of the bombing conspiracy. The deeper motives, on the other hand, remain rather ill understood … or are too disturbing to remain in public debate much. You can hardly help feeling that in America the concept of terrorism is more "comfortably" linked with the outside, as something foreigners (esp. Arabs) do to the US, and directed against values such as freedom and democracy. And of course, the very idea of a "home-grown" American terrorist targeting Americans sits rather uncomfortably with such a simplified view of terrorism. I hasten to add, though, that at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum itself, the domestic nature of McVeigh's et al. terrorist act is fully acknowledged and the issue of terrorism as such is not simplified in this xenophobic way.
In response to the bombing, security measures were tightened up – e.g. no more parking in front of government buildings, security checks on entry, etc. and other consequences included significant changes in legislation (esp. regarding the division between State and federal law). At the site itself, the planning of a memorial involved the relatives of victims and other locals to an unusual degree – as also documented in the present museum. After the structurally unsafe ruin of the Murrah Building had been demolished and other damage around the area repaired, the whole area of the footprint of the building, as well as what used to be the car park in front of it, was turned into the memorial ensemble of today. It opened in July 2000.
The memorial museum is housed in the adjacent former Journal Record Building, on the northern side of the former car park. This building had also sustained damage in the blast – and some degree of this has been retained as part of the museum exhibition. This lends it a degree of authenticity that the Murrah Building opposite could not retain, since it had to be completely demolished.
What there is to see: The outdoor memorial complex is loaded with symbolism. Its visually most dominating feature is an oblong reflecting pool, which occupies the space where Fifth Street would have run past the Murrah Federal Building. Towering over the ends of the pool are the so-called Gates of Time: the eastern one inscribed with the time 9:01 on the side facing the pool, the western one with 9:03 – i.e. the minutes before and after the moment that the bomb detonated on that fateful day of 19 April 1995. On the outside walls of the gates, i.e. those facing away from the memorial, inscriptions set out a kind of mission statement of the complex …
To the south of the reflecting pool, the area where the Murrah Building once stood is now filled with a Field of Empty Chairs. These are symbolic chairs made from stone, bronze and glass, one for each of the 168 victims who died in the attack. They come in two sizes, full size for adults and a smaller size for the children. These are arranged in nine rows, symbolizing the nine floors of the Murrah Building. Five chairs are set slightly to the side and stand for the five victims who were killed outside the building. The glass base of each chair bears the name of an individual victim, and these glass sections are illuminated at night. The field is framed by pine trees.
Along the southern side of the field of chairs you can see remains of the concrete foundation wall of the destroyed building, and on the south-eastern corner one small section of jagged outer concrete wall survives. Beneath it, facing the Field of Empty Chairs are two large plaques listing the names of all those who survived the tragedy – more than 600 names are included on this "Survivor Wall". An elevated garden south of the memorial complex proper is called Murrah Plaza and provides an overlook of the memorial.
To the north of the reflecting pool, a landscaped area filled with various nut- and flower-bearing trees is dubbed the Rescuers' Orchard. Set within this area is a small round promontory with yet more inscriptions on its inner wall. In the centre of this stands the so-called Survivor Tree. This tree, a ca. 100-year-old American elm, stood in what was the car park in front of the Murrah Building and thus was subjected to the full force of the blast, which destroyed all vehicles in the parking lot, but the tree, though heavily singed, survived. Apparently it was thought to be dead at first, but then "miraculously" sprouted leaves again, as if "coming back to life". Given this natural symbolism, the tree is now protected and well looked after – which also means that visitors are admonished not to pick off strips of its bark as souvenirs!
To the north-west of the Survivor Tree and the Rescuers' Orchard is the Children's Area which features yet more trees as well as a monument that incorporates reproductions of cards and drawings that children from around the country sent to Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the tragedy. A space with chalkboards set into the ground still offers the opportunity to leave comments or expressions of remembrance, sorrow or hope.
Just opposite across Harvey Avenue on the corner of Fifth Street is an ensemble of sculptures that isn't actually part of the National Memorial but also commemorates the same day – in this case the destruction in the blast of a parish house that was associated with the adjacent cathedral. For that reason (and don't forget that Oklahoma is Bible Belt territory) it's overtly religious, entitled "And Jesus Wept" … and indeed the main element of this memorial is a statue of a weeping Jesus. Back on the other side of the road, things continue in a somewhat less predictable fashion.
Outside the western perimeter of the memorial along Harvey Avenue is the Fence – this is a stretch of the original building site fence that was initially put up after the bombing to protect the site. Almost immediately people used this fence to leave tokens of remembrance ... as happened again on the fence around St Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero
in New York
in 2001. The memorial museum archive holds some 60,000 such objects.
The currently remaining 200 feet (60m) long stretch of original fence is still in use, that is: people still come to attach new tokens of remembrance to it. These include not just the more predictable items such as teddy bears and US flags, but also some unusual artefacts. I even spotted an electric tooth brush! Also interestingly, not all items on the fence relate only to the Oklahoma City bombing – no, it also transcends this single event, as it were, in that it has also been used to commemorate other atrocities too. For instance, so I was told, a Norwegian
flag appeared on the fence after the bombings and shootings in Oslo
and nearby Utøya island on 22 July 2011.
This story, as well as the deeper meanings of all the symbolism around the memorial, is relayed by National Park Rangers who are on hand to assist visitors during the day. When I was there, the ranger gave a 20-minute talk under the Survivor Tree. He also went round the site handing out little leaflets or depositing them in a number of help-yourself-dispensing boxes around the site.
The large beige building that occupies the space to the north of the memorial complex is/was the Journal Record Building, part of which today houses the memorial museum (see below). This imposing edifice, standing directly opposite the Murrah Building and the car park in between, naturally sustained severe damage from the blast as well. For instance part of the roof collapsed and support beams became dislodged from the outer wall. The building has since been repaired, but the appearance of the outer wall facing the memorial site was largely retained as it looked after the attack, including the mangled fire escapes. Also still in place is an inscription that a rescue team scribbled onto the wall demanding truth and justice.
The National Memorial Museum is housed inside the western half of this building. It's an elaborate, state-of-the-art, multimedia-heavy affair and very well made all round.
After paying their entrance fee visitors are taken in batches to the third floor where the exhibition begins. First there is a kind-of intro section about terrorism in the USA before April 1995, as well as an overview of the history of the site and the Murrah Building itself. The drama of 19 April 1995 is then "re-enacted" through an audio-visual installation in a separate room: here a tape of the only known recording covering the blast is played ... namely from a business meeting held in the Federal Building that morning – which was suddenly and violently brought to an end by the force of the detonation. Images of victims are projected onto the opposite wall during the running of the audio tape.
After this, visitors are left to freely explore the various sections of the memorial museum that follow. These are organized into "chapters", including the chaos and confusion immediately after the blast, testimonies from survivors, media reactions, rescue and recovery, and so forth.
Various artefacts illustrate the force of the blast – such as mangled pieces of office furniture, documents and equipment. Particularly disturbing is the display of flying shards of glass lodged firmly into a wall. Flying glass was the primary cause of injury.
Also amongst the artefacts on display are a heap of watches salvaged from the rubble (not all of which stopped at 9:02, some must have continued functioning after the blast) – and another display cabinet holds a number of shoes … which is strangely reminiscent of similar displays at a number of Holocaust
museums or concentration camp
The rescue efforts following the attack are well documented, with lots of photos, multimedia screens and yet more original artefacts – including the large cardboard sign that one survivor trapped on the edge of the ninth floor drew to attract the attention of the rescue teams below. Survivors' stories can be listened to at a number of stations in a separate room. Touch screens with e.g. rescuers' stories are dotted around the exhibition too.
Amongst the exhibits is one set that holds particular horror: one woman was found alive but with her leg trapped under a collapsed beam … and since the beam could not safely be moved it was decided to amputate the leg there and then in order to free the woman. The surgeon performing the operation ultimately had to use his pocket knife to cut the leg off at the knee … so at least the woman survived, but at what a horrific price. The little knife and the tourniquet he used are on display behind glass next to the text panel relaying the story.
The single largest exhibit is a block of concrete, one of the largest pieces of rubble at the bombing site, which had served as a kind of shrine during the rescue operations – a place where flowers, flags and personal items would be laid down, so that the upright concrete block became known as "the memorial slab".
The scale of the tragedy is brought home especially by stories of survivors who had several funerals to attend in a single day – sometimes they had to decide which to go to as the times overlapped or clashed… what a terrible decision to have to make! On the other hand there were also symbols and images of hope. The single most famous image of the aftermath of the bombing is the photo of a firefighter cradling in his arms an injured infant, immediately after he was handed the infant by a rescue worker. So powerful was the image's impact that it even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. However, neither the mother of the child (who was pronounced dead later that day) nor the firefighter in the image were all that happy with the image's fame. In fact they tried, unsuccessfully, to gain control over the use of the photo. This controversy illustrates the wider problematic topic of ethical concerns when it comes to privacy rights vs. public use of images of scenes of tragedy (see also under ethical issues
Another section delves into the first days of the investigation into the atrocity and the first leads towards identifying the perpetrators. Exhibits include pieces of evidence such as parts of the rental truck that carried the bomb (an axle and a mangled wheel) and fragments of plastic with traces of the explosives.
Following a flag-laden patriotic interlude that finishes this first half of the museum space, stairs lead down to the second floor. Here the first main section is a semi-circular memorial room, or "gallery of honor". Along its curved wall little display boxes hold photos of the 168 deceased victims of the tragedy, and most are also accompanied by little tokens of remembrance relating to the individual in question, be it little dolls or teddies or items representing people's hobbies, such as a model sewing machine or a golf ball. All this is expected to be particularly moving: there's even a box of tissues placed on the bench in the middle of the memorial room …
The next few sections cover the first year after the bombing, with regard to the site itself as well as the survivors and relatives of the dead. After the last three dead bodies had been recovered from the rubble, the structurally unsafe ruin of the Murrah Building had to be demolished – by controlled explosions, somewhat ironically. A few other nearby buildings also had to be taken down. The building that the museum is housed in, the former Journal Record Building, was also badly damaged but it could be saved and repaired.
Such physical processes are mirrored by the various psychological stories of survivors during that first year. These varied widely too – e.g. some found it hard to go back to their jobs, while others couldn't wait to get back to work as soon as possible, even though it would invariably remind them of dear colleagues lost in the tragedy.
An especially interesting section is devoted to the planning of this particular museum and the memorial. Here, the planners actively involved the people of Oklahoma City in the process, e.g. in conducting extensive surveys to find out what people wanted the memorial to convey most and what it should or shouldn't include. Another section describes the impact the Oklahoma City bombing had on US legislation and the tightening of security standards at federal facilities.
An extensive "behind the scenes" section covers the long-drawn-out forensic investigations after the attack. On display here are further parts of the bomb-carrying truck that were scattered all over the site and painstakingly reassembled by the investigators. You can also see the truck's ignition key as well as particles of the plastic barrels that held the explosives! A no-parking sign from the site now placed in the middle of the room, mangled and full of holes from flying debris, brings home the force of the blast too.
Obviously, the story of the perpetrators' arrest and trials are also covered in some depth. What comes across most here is, however, the express wish of survivors, victims' relatives and Oklahoma City people in general to see the trial end in a death sentence. And that's what they got, of course, in the case of the main perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh (though not for the other three suspects implicated as accomplices). To me, as an opponent of capital punishment as a matter of principle, this leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but overall it must be said that the exhibition isn't too focused on this sort of "revenge" angle. Instead, more emphasis is placed on aspects of hope and healing.
In the latter context, some background information is conveyed about the Survivor Tree and the Fence (see above). Another element of positive thinking in the face of tragedy is the inclusion of gold origami cranes – many such cranes were sent in, mostly by children, to Oklahoma City as signs of solidarity and mourning. This picks up a tradition started in Japan
. It was a girl called Sadako who began making origami cranes popular in the wake of the Hiroshima
bombings (see Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
), as she was recuperating (though she finally succumbed to her radiation-induced illness).
However, the most dramatic element of the museum from a dark tourism perspective has to be "the damaged area" – this is in fact a part of the building's interior preserved exactly in the state that the bombing left it … with partly collapsed walls and beams, broken windows, and debris strewn all over the floor, as well as a damaged filing cabinet from an adjacent office. It demonstrates the violent forces of the blast more than anything else in the museum. In the room next to this damaged area, the only windows within the museum open up the view over the memorial complex of today. A chart lists all the victims' names allocated to the 168 Empty Chairs in the field opposite. By this window visitors can also listen to survivors' and rescue workers' responses to two final questions: "what lessons do you hope people will learn from the bombing?" and "what do you hope people will take away from the Memorial?"
Beyond the regular permanent museum exhibition, there follows a space for temporary, regularly changing exhibitions. At the time of my visit (April 2012) this was an exhibition entitled "Reporting Terrorism", which was about the media coverage aspect of terrorist atrocities, as well as the portrayal of terrorist ideology and individual terrorists in the media … Needless to say, top-terrorist and 9/11
mastermind Osama Bin Laden featured heavily in this exhibition.
Back on the ground floor, there's a museum shop next to the entrance – however, only few of the items on sale in this shop relate directly to the museum's theme. Most are more general souvenirs.
All in all, I have to say I found the Oklahoma National Memorial Museum very impressive, more so than I had expected, in fact. The city may not typically feature on most tourists' preferred routes through the USA, but I can only warmly recommend it to anyone to make the detour to Oklahoma City to see this memorial and especially the museum. They really are worth it! For the serious dark tourist this place is one of the prime sites in the USA
right in downtown Oklahoma City (OKC), USA
, between Harvey Avenue to the west, Robinson Avenue to the east, Fourth Street to the south and Sixth Street to the north. The official address of the museum is 620 N. Harvey Avenue.
Access and costs: easy and free in the case of the open-air memorial; the museum charges an average admission fee.
Details: the central downtown location means it's walkable from the centre of OKC, including from the lively Bricktown and many downtown hotels – such as the historic Skirvin Hilton (one of the grand old dames of American hotels, splendidly renovated a few years ago … but reputedly still "haunted"). From the main train station (a bit south of the hotel) it is six blocks north and two blocks west, less than two thirds of a mile walk (ca. 1 km).
The open-air parts of the memorial complex are freely accessible at all times.
Opening hours of the museum: Mondays to Saturdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays 12 noon to 6 p.m. (last admission 5 p.m.).
Admission: 12 USD (senior citizens, military and students 10 USD).
Time required: at least two hours for the memorial museum alone, plus around another hour for the rest of the complex – i.e. roughly half a day should be allocated if you want to do the site justice.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
To the north-east of downtown Oklahoma City, at 2145 Northeast 36th Street, is the 45th Infantry Division Museum, which (apart from all manner of the more usual military memorabilia) also holds a number of unique artefacts taken from Adolf Hitler
's homes in Munich
and the Eagle's Nest
retreat in Bavaria (including his mirror salvaged from the Führerbunker!). While these objects may possibly have a slightly dubious aura, there's also a soberly moving section about the liberation of Dachau concentration camp
, as well as a section about the Korean War
Otherwise there's nothing much of interest to the dark tourist in the vicinity. The most accessible dark tourism destination further away would be Dallas
to the south in Texas, especially for its Sixth Floor Museum
. This memorial museum recounts another trauma of the second half of the 20th century in the USA
– the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. There is an element of similarity to the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing (only on a very different scale) – namely in that it was an American sniper, Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated a single other American person, the president. Dallas can fairly easily be reached from Oklahoma City by train (via Fort Worth), road (ca. 3 hours) or a ca. one-hour domestic flight.
For more places further afield see under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Oklahoma and its capital do not enjoy the most glamorous tourist reputations … given that Oklahoma is the southernmost of the Great Plains states, the prototypical "dustbowl". The tendency of the area's storms to develop into the world's most destructive tornadoes does not help either.
However, Oklahoma City itself has undergone quite a revitalization in recent years, in particular in the converted ex-railway warehouse district known as "Bricktown". This now boasts a pleasantly refurbished stretch of canal with boat rides and canal-side walking paths, all surrounded by countless bars, restaurants and shops. The area is now very much the focus of OKC nightlife.
Oklahoma is traditional cowboy heartland. This is reflected not only by OKC boasting one of the world's largest livestock markets but also in a dedicated National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (1700 N.E. 63rd Street, open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 12.50 USD).
Finally, Oklahoma is the state with the highest proportion of Native Americans of any state's population within the USA
– and a new American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is currently under construction in OKC, due to be completed in 2014. A preliminary Visitor Center already opened in 2008 (located at the intersection between I-40 and I-35).
- OCNM 01 - sign
- OCNM 02 - inscription on the eastern outer side
- OCNM 03 - eastern gate
- OCNM 04 - western gate and reflecting pool
- OCNM 05 - ducks on the reflecting pond looking out towards the eastern gate
- OCNM 06 - a chair for each victim
- OCNM 07 - victims chairs and survivor tree in the background
- OCNM 08 - a victim chair closer up
- OCNM 09 - corner with remains of the building
- OCNM 10 - part of the original concrete wall
- OCNM 11 - the fence
- OCNM 12 - the fence with fluffy mementos
- OCNM 13 - the fence, details
- OCNM 14 - flag and wallet
- OCNM 15 - Jesusy sculpture ensemble across the road
- OCNM 16 - part of the childrens memorial
- OCNM 17 - National Park ranger giving a talk under the survivor tree
- OCNM 18 - building now housing the memorial museum
- OCNM 19 - wall that faced the blast
- OCNM 20 - inscription left by rescue team
- OCNM 24 - museum display
- OCNM 34 - part of the building interior left in its damaged state
- OCNM 35 - looking out to where the Murrah Building used to stand
- OCNM 36 - Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum