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Building the 9/11 Memorial Museum: Reflections as opening day approaches

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SR-2In today’s moving TED Talk, Jake Barton of the design firm Local Projects shares the idea at the core of the yet-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum: that museum-goers need to be included in the telling of the story. Jake Barton: The museum of you Jake Barton: The museum of you “The event is so recent, somewhere between history and current events,” says Barton, explaining that more than a third of people around the world watched the Twin Towers collapse in real time, while another third heard about it within 24 hours. “You can’t have just a historian or curator narrating objectively in third person about an event like that when you have the witnesses to history who are going to make their way through the museum itself.”

Barton’s talk gives a behind-the-scenes look at how these exhibits weave together photos, videos, written history and oral narratives from people all around the world, and how the Memorial itself was designed to display all the names of those killed on 9/11 by “meaningful adjacencies.” It’s a talk that feels highly appropriate as we approach the 12th anniversary of this tragic day. 

As we share Barton’s talk, we’re also reminded of a talk given by filmmaker Steve Rosenbaum at TED University 2012. Rosenbaum has been documenting the entire process of creating the Museum and Memorial since it begun for a documentary, a book and a digital record of the decisions made. In the talk below, Rosenbaum takes us on a tour of the museum, which is built underground to show the architectural heart of the Twin Towers, and which is intended to be “a living institution.”

Today, we asked Rosenbaum to give us an update on what is happening with the museum right now, in both words and pictures. 

Last year, I stood in front of the TED community and shared a secret that I’d been keeping for almost a decade: I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of recording the conceptualization, design and construction of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero. The talk I gave at TED University in 2012 gave my fellow TED attendees a look at the complex and often emotional work of curating the story of 9/11 for visitors, many of whom were too young to remember when the Twin Towers fell.

Today, that TED Talk has been viewed more than 70,000 times — and the feedback and conversations it has prompted have served to teach me many things about the 9/11 story and its importance, and about the disconnect between the speed of the current world we live in and the actual time that doing big, complex things take.

The question I get asked most often is this one: “When will the museum open?” It wasn’t a question I could answer at TED in 2012. But today, I’m happy to report that the opening is now within sight. Spring of 2014 is the answer — and my now, often weekly, visits to the site have given me a front row seat to what I know can say with confidence will be an extraordinary and important institution when it opens to the public.

There’s no doubt that the millions of visitors who’ve been to the Memorial, read the names and watched the waterfall over the parapets and into the voids below understand the gravity of what happened on the site. But for young people, the story is often left at: terrorists flew planes into builds and they collapsed. Once the museum opens, the story will gain remarkable detail and nuance. The names will have stories. The events will have context and — thanks to work of the Museum team — details, facts and knowledge will be brought out for public view.

Here are some images from the construction:


A young man looks at the 9/11 Memorial. He was no doubt very young, if even born, in 2001.


Foundation Hall: Construction is nearing completion.


“The Last Column” stands ready to be unveiled.


Engine 21 tells the story of the FDNY, the terrible loss of first responders and the heroic rescue operation.


This ambulance is being moved into its final position in the museum exhibition.


The stairs from the Pavilion leading down to the Memorial Museum underground.


Historic artifacts stand ready to tell the story of 9/11 when the Museum opens.


Every detail, from the words down to the letter size and the font choices, has been carefully considered.


Amy Weisser and professionals from the Museum team test different font sizes to be mounted on the Museum walls.


Me, filming on location.


The Museum’s Chief Curator Jan Ramirez inspects the footings of the original towers that will be preserved, so visitors can see the original architectural structure.


The museum team testing lettering on walls above the massive steel footings.

The project has had delays. An almost one-year construction shutdown was the result of a funding dispute — and then Superstorm Sandy poured water into the site through an adjacent World Trade Center project, resulting in necessary cleanup and construction work.

But now that’s all in the past. The construction is being completed. The museum exhibits and media displays are beginning to be moved to the site for testing and fine-tuning. The coming months will be full of twists and turns, as the full emotional weight of the story is brought to bear. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking and pressure-filled time. And one that, after seven years, I’m excited to see made ready for public viewing. One thing I’m certain of: the story of 9/11 becomes more complex, and more important, as world events change the complexion and conversation about our role in a danger-filled political world.

On the TED stage I asked the question: “Where were you on 9/11?” Soon, we’ll all have a place to answer that question.