Thirteen years after Sept. 11, the meaning of that day in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, is still hard to come by. And the center of that still-raw, unsettled chapter in our collective history is the 9/11 Museum in Lower Manhattan.
Since it opened to the public in late May on the grounds of where the Twin Towers once stood, the museum has drawn nearly 1 million visitors. More visitors have come from New York than any other state; the museum has also attracted tourists from 131 countries.
Nothing about the 9/11 Museum, including its visitors, has escaped debate. Even the thought of tourists drawn to a site that, in somber truth, is the burial ground for those who lost their lives that day, fills some with unease. "I just can't bear the thought of being there with all the buses and tourists in silly hats," said Bill Grueskin, who at the time of the attacks was a senior editor for The Wall Street Journal in nearby Battery Park City.
But on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the newly opened 9/11 Museum will be off-limits to all but family who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 and the earlier 1993 World Trade Center attack, as commemoration ceremonies take place on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, just outside the museum.
Later that day, the Memorial Plaza will reopen to the public at 6 p.m. and close at midnight. In between visitors can see the annual Tribute in Light, 2 vertical columns of light, composed of 88 separate 7,000-watt bulbs, which will light up the Lower Manhattan skyline in remembrance of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The day's somber remembrances reflect the 9/11 Museum's ongoing efforts to strike a balance between collective and private grief, something that's been the source of heated debate in the years and months leading up to the museum's opening. In all, the museum has sparked varying opinions for reasons big and small, from the now-infamous cheese platter, since pulled from its gift shop; to a fundraising cocktail party held on its grounds before its official opening; as well as for what some consider its steep $24 admission fee. (Families of lost ones and rescue workers, however, can gain free admission any day of the week; all other visitors can do so between 5 and 7 p.m. every Tuesday.)
Even the museum's latest exhibit, showcasing the fatigue shirt worn by a Navy Seal who killed Osama bin Laden, has sparked strong feelings, with Newsweek calling it "cheap closure."
Far from easy closure, though, or throngs of rubbernecking tourists, the 9/11 Museum fills visitors with numbed reflection from the moment they walk through its light-filled, glass atrium. The metal detectors you encounter upon entry, with security and police at nearly every turn, have something to do with it.
As you descend by escalator 70 feet below ground, you catch your first glimpse of what remains of the landmarks that once stood: two 70-foot-high steel tridents that were once part of the Gothic arches at the base of the north tower. You can visualize what once was, in haunting detail, in the museum's concourse; that's where you'll find one of the last photos ever taken of the intact Twin Towers, before they were hit at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., with the South Tower collapsing under an hour later and the North Tower in 102 minutes.
While only family members can gather at the 9/11 Museum for the 13th anniversary commemoration, others can watch the ceremony, which will include the reading of names of those lost at the World Trade Center, as well as at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Penn., on a livestream.