A visual and visceral experience: The September 11 Memorial and Museum

“Trying to remember the color of the sky on that September morning”
Watercolor on paper by Spencer Finch

IMG_4559Last week I visited the September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. The experience was incredibly jarring–and rightfully so. From beginning to end, the visit was a visceral experience, primarily due to the poignant implementation of visuals, from architectural design and artifacts to photojournalism, data visualizations, and art works.

The September 11 Memorial’s twin reflecting pools occupy the footprint of each Twin Tower. The names of every person who died on 9/11 are inscribed on bronze panels, which surround the reflecting pools. The experience of approaching the Memorial, seeing and touching the names of the deceased, and then looking over the edge to observe the water disappearing into the square abyss is haunting.


IMG_4440As a photojournalism scholar, I was interested in the use of photographs within the September 11 Museum. While photographs are included throughout the museum, they are not a prominent feature of the initial museum experience. Instead, architectural design and historical artifacts visually assail a visitor as one descends into the depths of the site, an unsettling, yet appropriately effective, visual metaphor for the shock and horror of the day. As visitors descend stairs into the museum, two damaged steel “tridents” (part of the unique design of the Twin Towers) loom above. The placement of these is especially unsettling, as visitors can see through them and the glass museum façade to the shining and flawless One World Trade Center.

tridentFrom there visitors experience additional artifacts: the massive slurry wall—which kept water from the Hudson River from seeping into the Twin Towers—and the poignant “Last Column”—the final steel column removed from Ground Zero, which became a site of memorial messages. Both of these artifacts have a raw and exposed aesthetic, which reinforces and echoes a visitor’s affective reaction.

SlurryColumnThroughout the museum space, other massive steel artifacts are on display, most notably an airplane point of impact. Seeing and being invited to touch the once sturdy, but now twisted and fallen, steel was bone chilling.


steelAlso in regard to architectural design and historical artifact, two of the main museum exhibits are located within the footprints of the steel box column remnants of the Twin Towers. Enclosed with the box column remnants of the footprint of the South Tower is a solemn and moving exhibit about the victims of September 11. The exhibit features a photo and multimedia memorial about each victim, as well as personal artifacts found at Ground Zero.

boxcolumnsReturning to photographs, I was especially interested in the museum’s use of iconic images and graphic images. There were numerous photos and videos of the Twin Towers, which have been shown to be an iconic visual theme of the event, in various states of construction, completion, impact, and destruction.

IMG_4515Highly graphic images were more prominently featured than I perhaps expected them to be. But they were treated with humanity and—upon reflection—worked to reinforce the horror and magnitude of the events of the day. Richard Drew’s iconic “Falling Man” photograph was used with several other shocking images of people falling or jumping. As arguably the most disturbing images on display, they were located in a small alcove with an advisory sign that prepared visitors for “graphic images.” Also of note, these images were not displayed as prints; rather, they where shown as fleeting images projected onto a blank wall.

As one of the most recognized and touted images from 9/11, Thomas Franklin’s “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero” photograph was included in the museum. But its use was not as I expected. As a patriotic image reminiscent of collective American history, I suspected that it might appear at the beginning of the museum in a large size. Instead, it appeared toward the end of the museum experience in a fairly standard size—its placement and treatment was fairly typical to other photos in the museum, as opposed to my expectation of spectacular treatment. Most of the photographs in the museum were located in exhibits that did not allow visitors to take photos.

In addition to the visceral affect of the twin reflecting pools and the twisted steel, I was most haunted by the art installations throughout the museum. The two pieces on memory were especially striking, both beautifully and painfully.

IMG_4576“Trying to remember the color of the sky on that September morning,” watercolor on paper by Spencer Finch, is a series of 2,983 individual watercolors, one for every victim. Each watercolor is an exploration of the exact shade of blue on the morning of September 11, 2001. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” sculpture by Tom Joice, explored the transformative process of iron when exposed to fire. Joice transformed “wounded” steel pieces recovered from Ground Zero into forms of “hope and beauty.” Both pieces attest to memory, both individual and collective. The effect is especially poignant as you step closer and learn that behind the wall are the reposed remains of many of the people who died at the World Trade Center site on 9/11.


Image credits: Nicole Dahmen took all photographs used in this post.


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