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Reflections on the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, from the lead exhibition designer

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
A look at the Slurry Wall inside the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Here, lead exhibition designer Tom Hennes reflects on it opening to the public. Photo: Jin Lee

A look at the Slurry Wall inside the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Here, lead exhibition designer Tom Hennes reflects on it opening to the public. Photo: Jin Lee

If you watch TED Talks, you know Tom Hennes’ designs well. His firm, Thinc Design, created the stage for the TED conference in Monterey and Long Beach from 2003 through 2012. Thinc Design was also the lead exhibition designer for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened to the public yesterday. The TED Blog asked Hennes to reflect on the opening:

At 9 o’clock yesterday morning, the doors of the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened for the first time to the general public, represented in the growing queue by a slightly wary group led by an intrepid woman in a pink t-shirt. I’ve become so accustomed to the sound of workers and machinery down there, 70 feet below the Memorial plaza, that the relative hush of people encountering the vast museum spaces for the first time caught me a bit off guard. People moved slowly, deliberately, taking it all in, reading—reading everything—looking, taking pictures, talking with each other in barely audible tones. They leaned over the edge of the entry ramp in front of the immense piece of impact steel—a mangled trio of steel columns from the façade of the North Tower just above the impact of Flight 11 from about the ninety-sixth floor—looking intently at the inward-bent claw at its lower terminus. They paused at the images of missing posters, quietly looking, before moving downward, along the Vesey Street Stair—that last stairway to safety for so many people on 9/11—toward the bedrock level that is the museum’s main floor. And there they wandered, looking around, still speaking quietly with each other, to the other parts of the museum; a regular, if halting, processional that dissolved into myriad paths according to the interest, inclination, and depth which each person in the museum sought—or could tolerate..

Our work on the museum over the past seven years has similarly threaded among the polarities and contradictions of this all too deeply-felt and widely-experienced event. The central design challenge is not, as it is in so many museums, to bring the material to life. Rather, the central design challenge is to maintain that aliveness while making it bearable to witness. This includes not only the material that pertains to the attacks themselves and the way people experienced them—as difficult as that is. It also pertains to responses people have had to the events that may differ, sometimes strongly, with those that others may have had. Along with a wide-ranging team—both inside the museum and among its consultants and many constituents—the design team has sought to create a museum that presents a wide range of perspectives on what happened, giving everyone—we hope—familiar points of reference that feel authentic to their own experience of 9/11. At the same time, in the same space, people may also encounter other kinds of experiences and responses that may at first seem alien to them. By maintaining the first-person voice throughout, and by continuously re-grounding the exhibits in lived experience, we have sought to create conditions where people feel comfortable moving out of their own experience to witness the events and others’ myriad responses to them with greater empathy and an increased sense of how they themselves relate to 9/11. By witnessing others, and being witnessed by others in the museum, we are all brought into closer contact with our own humanity.

Such depth of feeling and response to others are only possible in a space that feels safe. Safety arises out of a feeling of containment and protection, and out of the ability to control our own experience. This means giving people choices as to where to go and what to encounter, as well as a way of navigating the space that makes those choices clear. It also requires ready access to exits and relief spaces where people can sit and reflect, as well as staff ready to be of assistance when needed. But safety is not the only requirement. For people to be able to push beyond their own frames of reference also requires the presence of the other, contrasting perspectives that inhabit the spaces, and the awareness that a turn in one direction can lead into more challenging terrain than a turn in another. In this way, the museum becomes what the team has come to call ‘safe enough’—providing enough safety to allow the experience to enter us in the museum, but not so safe that we don’t stretch our own horizons and come to new insights about ourselves and others. Choice comes into play and the design becomes an essential aspect of the experience as a whole when it enables each of us to navigate a path that is ‘safe enough’ for us.

At nine o’clock yesterday morning, the first people who were not family members, survivors, rescuers, or recovery workers walked into the museum and through the cloud of voices in the introductory exhibit that tell stories of where they were on 9/11 and how they felt, their words projected as a map of the world onto screens. These first witnesses to the museum walked through, taking in the knowledge that they, too, were witnesses to 9/11. An hour later, the first of the day’s wanderers through the museum arrived at the recumbent piece of steel, located in the vast space called Foundation Hall—between the Last Column and the escalator that would carry them back to the surface—where they could use an electronic pen to write their thoughts and see them projected onto another map of words, now projected onto the base of the huge Slurry Wall that once formed the foundation of the World Trade Center and now forms the perimeter wall of the museum. Wherever they had been then, on that September 11 in 2001, they were here now, at this place, on May 21 in 2014, as part of a growing community of witness. Theirs was a journey that will be repeated millions of times over the coming years. I can only hope that the museum will bring the journeyers closer to their own experience and toward a sense of fulfillment in the journey, so that they feel more ready to engage with the complex world, with all its difficulties and opportunities alike, that awaits their return to the surface.

The exterior of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Photo: Amy Dreher

The exterior of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Photo: Amy Dreher