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Thu May 15, 2014

Amid Controversy, Sept. 11 Museum Opens Its Doors

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 3:09 pm

The National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York was dedicated Thursday morning in front of an audience that included President Obama.

"It tells the story of how, in the aftermath of the attacks, our city, our nation and peoples from across the world came together, supporting each other through difficult times and emerging stronger than ever," said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is the museum's chairman. "That, more than any eulogy, was the greatest tribute we could pay to those that we lost."

Most of the museum is underground. To get there, you walk down a long flight of stairs, then down a winding ramp to the bedrock 70 feet below street level — all the way down to the original foundation of the twin towers. After the attacks, this area became known as ground zero, where first responders and volunteers combed through the massive pile of rubble left after the towers collapsed.

"I was used to coming down here with boots on and stepping in mud and water," says Anthony Gardner, who lost his brother on Sept. 11. "And now it's this finished place."

Since Sept. 11, Gardner has pushed — as an activist and a member of the museum's advisory council — to preserve the buildings' foundation. He wants visitors "to stand within the actual footprints of the towers and be able connect to the people who died and connect to the experience of those of us who lived through Sept. 11 — what we endured and how we responded."

The exhibits include massive steel fragments of the twin towers themselves, along with artifacts from first responders and office workers: photographs, video and hundreds of oral histories.

But the museum is more than just a chronicle of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. It also contains a memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who died that day and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. And in another section — off-limits to the public — it houses the remains of some of the 1,100 World Trade Center victims that were never positively identified. A small but passionate group of family members continues to protest that decision.

Former New York Fire Chief Jim Riches lost his son, also a firefighter, on Sept. 11. He says, "This is the only cemetery that's going to charge admission in the whole world."

He and other families want to put the remains at street level, where the general public won't have to pay a $24 admission fee to pay its respects.

"It's outrageous," Riches says. "They're making money off my dead son."

Museum officials insist the majority of families are satisfied with keeping the remains below ground.

But that's one of many controversial choices the museum had to grapple with. It's also been criticized for including pictures of the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks, and for a seven minute video exhibit narrated by NBC's Brian Williams called "The Rise of Al-Qaida."

Arab-American groups are worried that some viewers may not get the message that al-Qaida is a radical fringe group and that it doesn't speak for the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.

"What we think this film is going to do is potentially distort the image of Islam, which is something we've been working to fix for the past 12 years, since the day of Sept. 11," says Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York.

But museum officials insist the language in the video was carefully vetted by curators and independent advisers, and that it's not going to change. They hope some of the criticism will fade as visitors finally get the chance to stand at the ground zero bedrock, but they seem resigned to the idea that it's not going away completely.

"The nature of this institution is looking at very hard things," says Paula Berry, who lost her husband on Sept. 11. "And so, I think, when you look at very hard things it is controversial."

Berry is now the co-chair of the museum's program committee. She says it will not be an easy experience for many visitors.

"It is not sugar coated. It's the facts," Berry says. "It would be wrong if it was any other way. But it's difficult, hard — especially for a family member."

Family members are getting a first look at the National September 11 Memorial Museum Thursday. It opens to the general public next week.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's move now back to the U.S. and New York City, where the National September 11th Memorial Museum is being dedicated this morning, before an audience that includes the families of 911 victims. President Obama was among the dignitaries to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is an honor for us to join in your memories, to recall and to reflect, but above all, to reaffirm the true spirit of 911.

MONTAGNE: Getting to this moment, though, has involved many challenges for the museum, from problems with fundraising, to criticism from victims' family members.

As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the museum has stirred up powerful emotions from its inception a decade ago.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Most of the September 11th Museum is underground. To get there, you walk down a long flight of stairs, then down a winding ramp to the bedrock 70 feet below street level, all the way down to the original foundation of the Twin Towers. After the attacks, this became known as Ground Zero, where first responders and volunteers combed through the massive pile of rubble left after the towers collapsed.

ANTHONY GARDNER: I was used to, over the years, coming down here with, you know, boots on and stepping in mud and water. And now it's this finished place.

ROSE: Anthony Gardner lost his brother on September 11th. Since then, he's pushed as an activist, and a member of the museum's advisory council, to preserve the foundation of the buildings for the museum's visitors.

GARDNER: To stand within the actual footprints of the towers and be able connect to the people who died. And connect to the experience of those of, you know, those of us who lived through 9/11, what we endured and how we responded.

ROSE: The exhibits include massive steel fragments of the Twin Towers themselves, along with artifacts from first responders and office workers, photographs and video, and hundreds of oral histories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There was this explosion. Unbelievable shudder. The building just shook. It was like something punched.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The building leaned so far over, that people fell. All this debris was coming out the windows.

ROSE: The museum is more than just a chronicle of September 11th and its aftermath. It also contains a memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, and in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. And in another section - off-limits to the public - it houses the remains of some of the 1,100 World Trade Center victims that were never positively identified. A small but passionate group of family members continues to protest that decision.

JIM RICHES: This is the only cemetery that's going to charge admission in the whole world.

ROSE: Former New York fire Chief Jim Riches lost his son, also a firefighter, on September 11th. He and other families want to put the remains at street level - where the general public won't have to pay a $24 admission fee to pay its respects.

RICHES: It's outrageous. They're making money off my dead son.

ROSE: Museum officials insist the majority of families are satisfied with keeping the remains below ground. That's one of many controversial choices the museum had to grapple with. It's also been criticized for including pictures of the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks and for a seven minute video exhibit narrated by Brian Williams of NBC, called "The Rise of Al-Qaeda."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE RISE OF AL-QAEDA")

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Al-Qaida believes that such a spectacular attack would lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops and diminish American influence in Muslim land.

ROSE: Arab-American groups are worried that some viewers may not get the message that al-Qaida is a radical fringe group, and that it doesn't speak for a billion and a half Muslims around the world. Linda Sarsour is executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York.

LINDA SARSOUR: What we think this film is going to do is potentially distort the image of Islam, which is something we've been working to fix for the past 12 years, since the day of 9/11.

ROSE: But museum officials insist the language in the video was carefully vetted by curators and independent advisers, and that it's not going to change. They hope some of the criticism will fade as visitors finally get the chance to stand at Ground Zero bedrock, but they seem resigned to the idea that it's not going away completely.

PAULA BERRY: The nature of this institution is looking at very hard things. And so, I think when you look at very hard things, it is controversial.

ROSE: Paula Berry lost her husband David on September 11th. She's now the co-chair of the museum's program committee. And she says it will not be an easy experience for many visitors.

BERRY: It is um, not sugar coated. It's the facts. It would be wrong if it was any other way. But it's difficult. Hard. Especially for a family member.

ROSE: Family members are getting a first look at the National September 11th Memorial Museum today. It opens to the general public next week.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.