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The 9/11 Memorial & Museum: Lessons of National and Personal Loss

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In Memoriam space showing photographs of each of the dead from the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Photo: Jin Lee. Courtesy of the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum) How does a museum tell a story of such breadth, such gravity, such sadness?

I’d never visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum until this past Thursday. No particular reason. Twenty years ago, I was steeped in 9/11, as any patriot, as anyone with a heart, would be. It was so sad, so unnecessary, predictable but a shock. It’s certainly defined the times since. The cops and firemen who died, the wrenching phone calls and voicemail messages, the jumpers, and so many lost young people make 9/11 and what followed harrowing and devastating.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum, as it’s called, opened in 2014. With the 20th anniversary this weekend, and with the unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan, I wanted to go and felt I needed to go. I wanted to test sadness and memory against what I thought, at least as I planned my visit, might be September 11’s denouement. I went disgusted by our government’s incompetence, deceit, and betrayal, from the days leading up to September 11, 2001, to today, to now. I went as a critic, curious about how a story of this breadth, this gravity, this sadness is told. How do I square this roiling bucket of emotions with the patriot and citizen in me?

(Photo: Joe Woolhead. Courtesy of the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum)

I bring one bias to new museum buildings. Having done a renovation of a small but historic museum and an addition to it, I’m disposed to admire those who’ve stewarded a new concept and new building from start to finish, especially when both concept and building are big ones. A more fraught project is inconceivable. Expectations were high, various, and, at points, irreconcilable.

I spoke with Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director, while I was there. She is a strong, warm, savvy person who strikes me as deeply responsible and deeply respectful. She stewarded the museum from the beginning, along

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