Part 1: September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York honors victims

The museum was partially built using materials from the original towers and is filled with stories of victims

Today's expression: Strike a balance
Explore more: Lesson #398
September 13, 2021:

Last week, lesson 397 discussed what happened on September 11, 2001. In part 1 of 2 lessons, today covers the Ground Zero Museum and Memorial in New York that was built where the Twin Towers once stood. The museum tries to strike a balance between honoring the victims and telling the story of what happened there, and you’ll learn what “strike a balance” means.

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Here’s what you’ll find at the September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. Today is lesson 398, so you can find the full lesson at PlainEnglish.com/398.

Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of September 11, and I thought that today we would talk about the September 11 Museum at Ground Zero in New York. As I was preparing this lesson, I realized it was way too long, so I split it in two. We’ll do the first half today and the second half on Thursday.

You all are learning and improving your English, and a big part of a language is understanding the places where it is spoken. Ground Zero, the place in New York where the Twin Towers once stood, is a very important place in U.S. history. It’s now twenty years later, so this day does belong to history, as hard as that is to believe now.

September 11 Memorial and Museum

More than ten years after September 11, 2001, a memorial and museum opened at the New York site known as “Ground Zero.” The memorial is a set of deep square reflecting pools that trace the footprints of the original towers. Names of the victims are etched into the side of each. This is public and accessible from the street. These are well-designed, somber, and appropriate.

The museum, however, is something different. It was always going to be controversial: what should a museum on such a site do? Should it be a somber acknowledgment of the death and destruction, like a cemetery? That sounds a little depressing. Should it be a modern museum with interactive exhibits? That runs the risk of being too much like a carnival that disrespects the victims. Should it simply be a catalog of evidence and artifacts? In that case, what would be the point of visiting?

Not everyone was happy with the result; however, I think the museum strikes the right balance between honoring the victims and telling the story of what happened at Ground Zero.

The museum tells the September 11 story in the exact place where the attacks occurred. The museum’s entryway is on the street level, with a large, modern glass atrium designed by a Norwegian architect. In the entryway stand two enormous steel beams called tridents. They were the signature design of the exterior of the original towers; when they were part of the buildings, they were covered in aluminum and extended from their base deep below ground all the way to the very top. These two building elements survived the collapse of the North Tower. They’re grounded in the bedrock deep below and extend a few stories up above street level. As massive as they seem in the lobby when viewing them, you realize that you’re looking at just a portion of them. Right from the lobby, then, you get a sense of the enormity of the towers that once stood on that site.

The exhibits are about 70 feet below ground, the very bottom of what had been the world’s tallest buildings. As you go down a long ramp, the light of the atrium turns to darkness and the experience of the museum begins. You hear recorded sounds, see videos and maps projected on the walls.

The ramp takes you down to the bedrock in between the two memorial pools above. It’s as far deep into the earth as you can go without blasting into rock. And that is where you, as a visitor, can start to view the exhibitions. You have the choice to go either to the memorial section, which honors the victims, or the exhibits showing the events themselves as they unfolded .

For a visitor, it can be an awkward choice: should I pay respects to the victims first, or skip it? The memorial section tells the stories of individuals. Photos of nearly 3,000 people are displayed on the walls; some videos and audio shed more light on their lives.

The unidentified human remains recovered from the site are stored in an adjacent room that is not accessible to the public. Thousands of fragments of human tissue were carefully preserved and placed in boxes during the excavation effort; most were not identified. For a visitor, the proximity is powerful; as you look at the photos of the people who died there, you realize that you’re not just in a museum, but also a gravesite.

The part of the museum that describes the events of the day comes next. The challenge for the museum’s creators was to tell a story that is still unfolding and to tell a story that, essentially, most museum visitors already know.

Another challenge is knowing when to start and when to stop the story. September 11 was a single day; the attacks lasted for only a few hours in the morning. The rescue efforts lasted a few days; the clean-up a few years. But the effects of that day extend many years into the future, including up to the present day. And the site had a long history before September 11. The towers were built in the mid-twentieth century. They had already been bombed once, in 1993. How much of that should the museum address?

The museum curators focused the exhibits on the day and its immediate aftermath. So inevitably, one criticism of the museum is that it’s lacking in context. It tells the story of that day, September 11, 2001, but it doesn’t do a dive deep into the history that led up to that day, nor what came after. Another criticism is that the museum overdoes the good-versus-evil theme; a small number of villains set against the many heroes who responded.

That criticism is valid, I think, but misplaced. There are plenty of other times and places in which to think about those things; you don’t go to this museum to delve into what the U.S. should have done differently before or after.

Everyone has their own interpretation and opinion of things and if the museum tried to do too much outside of simply telling the story of that day, then I think they would have alienated a lot of people.

On Thursday’s lesson, I’ll tell you about the three things you’ll see on display through the exhibits: large, architectural remains of the towers; artifacts recovered from the debris; and electronic media like videos, audios, and photos.

Planning a visit

I do definitely recommend the museum if you visit New York. It’s a very well-designed museum, very thoughtful. If you go, I would dedicate half a day to it. You probably won’t spend half a day inside the museum. However, you want to schedule some time to decompress afterward. You don’t want to go straight from the museum to continue onto other tourist activities for the day.

There are a couple of additional things nearby worth seeing as well. The new Freedom Tower, which by some definitions is the tallest building in North America, is close. That office tower was completed in late 2014 and has an observation deck on the 101st floor. It’s not directly on the site of the Twin Towers, but it’s just across the street to the north. The other thing to see there is the World Trade Center PATH station.

The PATH is a train that goes between New York City and northern New Jersey, under the Hudson River. It’s like a mini subway system all on its own. The previous station was destroyed in the attacks. The new one was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It’s a unique design, and there’s a shopping center in there, too. So, the four things to see at Ground Zero would be the memorial, the museum, the new One World Trade Center building known as the Freedom Tower, and the World Trade Center PATH station.

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Expression: Strike a balance