The 9/11 Museum
New York is one of my favorite family destinations as there are so many interesting things to see and do that you could easily spend weeks here before you exhausted all the possibilities.
But one place I have been hesitant about taking my nieces and nephews to see is the 9/11 Museum. Not because I don’t think it is an extremely important chapter in America’s history and one that deserves to be recognized and its victims remembered, but because I myself am unsure of how to explain something to them that I have difficulty explaining to myself.
My family had visited the 9/11 Memorial Plaza (built over the underground 9/11 Museum) with the kids in 2015 but had passed on the museum due to their young age (6, 8, and 10). I was visiting NYC this past fall without the family and thought I would take the opportunity to visit the museum firsthand to see what I thought about bringing the kids next time. Here are my conclusions.
The 9/11 Museum Is Beautifully Done and Has an Incredible Amount of Artifacts
The design of the museum takes you through the original foundations of the World Trade Center, with large pieces of steel and concrete punctuating your descent through the layers.
Most of the museum is a central open space containing Foundation Hall (because it has huge pieces of the original foundation) and Memorial Hall (which connects the two original footprints of the Twin Towers). Around these two halls are placed the two permanent exhibitions (Memorial and Historical), the temporary exhibits, and the theaters showing short documentary films. Foundation and Memorial Hall effectively communicate the size of the buildings, something that will help children that never saw the Twin Towers in person, understand the scale of the destruction and wreckage.
The Historical Exhibition has thousands of artifacts, video footage, and audio recordings to piece together the events leading up to 9/11, the timeline of the day as it unfolded, and devastating aftermath, not only in New York City but as it touched the lives of people around the world.
You could spend hours looking at the pieces of rubble, watching the news reports, listening to people’s first hand accounts of the tragedy, and reading all the messages of hope and love sent to survivors, volunteers, and the people of New York from around the country and the world.
Kids will appreciate the vastness of the central halls and the large artifacts and art installations they hold. The destroyed fire engine, for instance, and the blue sky mosaic will probably make the biggest impression on them. I recommend looking over their shoulder though while touring through the Historical Exhibit as some of the photos and videos might be too much for them to handle emotionally.
The Victims of 9/11 Have a Prominent Place in the Museum
The Memorial Exhibition in the museum is a room dedicated to all the victims of 9/11 and the earlier, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center. It is a room full of photos, heartbreaking because these are all people that are no longer with us, but the overall effect is more pensive than weeping because so many of the pictures are of smiling faces. Family members chose to remember the victims in happier times.
You can learn more about the people behind the photographs by clicking on touchscreens around the room. Family members have shared more photographs and reflections for these profiles as well as even more in-depth profiles projected in a separate, inner room, accompanied by audio recordings.
The Memorial Exhibition was oddly one of my favorite parts of the museum. I took comfort in knowing none of these people would be forgotten. I think children would feel the same. Most children will also be inured by the fact that many of them have yet to experience real tragedy and so will not connect the pictures to a sense of loss personally.
This Was a Horrific Attack and the Museum Doesn’t Shy Away From That
During parts of the Historical Exhibition, I had to close my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath. Voice messages that victims left for family members and photographs of people jumping from the Twin Towers brought me to tears. (The Museum gives you fair notice about the more graphic sections and allows people to avoid them, i.e. the photos of the jumpers are somewhat hidden from the rest of the exhibit by partitions that have a warning sign.)
There is no sugar-coating the devastation of 9/11 and the human cost, both to victims and survivors, but also to their loved ones. I appreciated that the museum does not avoid covering any of the facts just because they are terrible, but this does mean that kids will have some hard questions for you afterwards.
Some of the images and items in the exhibit may traumatize younger children who can’t understand why anyone would do this. I am still having trouble with that myself but at least I can understand it intellectually, if not emotionally. Younger kids won’t have that ability to separate the two.
Understandably, no photography is allowed in the Memorial or Historical Exhibitions. To get a better idea of what these two exhibits entail, peruse the Museum’s website or better yet, take the Virtual Tour.
I Learned a Great Deal
Particularly about the events leading up to 9/11, about Flight 93, and about the sheer size and complexity of the recovery. There was so much I didn’t know or realize.
I spent a lot of time reading the timeline detailing the hijackers’ movements in the days leading up to 9/11. It was all riveting, from their training at flight school in the US to the reconnaissance flights they took beforehand, and especially how one of the hijackers was arrested by the FBI a month ahead of time for suspicious activity at his flight school. It is so easy in hindsight to see what should have been done differently, but it does make some of the security changes following 9/11 more understandable.
I also really appreciated the sections about Flight 93. I am in awe of the passengers on that flight—the courage they had to try and save others at the highest cost to themselves. Listening to and reading the messages from the crew and passengers as they learned about the attacks on the Twin Towers, realized their fate, and decided to do something to change it, was one of my most lingering impressions of the museum.
Kids may be interested in the parts of the Historical Exhibit about the days before 9/11, especially seeing the pictures and models of the Twin Towers as it will help them understand why they were such an important symbol of New York and America.
I think much of the Historical Exhibit may be difficult for some kids to get much out of as there are hundreds of artifacts with small plaques explaining them, requiring a lot of reading. But the amount of destruction and the size of the recovery and rebuild will be apparent just from walking among the displays and watching a few of the videos so even less patient readers will get an idea.
The Museum Has a Message of Hope and Remembrance Throughout
From the victims’ pictures in the Memorial Exhibit to the rescuers’ names scrawled on the giant “Last Column” in Foundation Hall, remembering is an integral part of the museum. But hope is also a huge part. The part of the Historical Exhibition that deals with the days after 9/11 are filled with the stories of the multitudes of volunteers who gave donations, time, and spirit to help New York recover. It’s a nice reminder that the world is still full of good people.
By the imposing slurry wall in the Foundation Hall, you can write messages that will be projected as part of an art installation. I enjoyed watching my fellow museum-goers write and draw such messages of goodwill.
I have no easy answers for you here. Like many things as a parent, visiting the 9/11 Museum will be an individual decision based on you and your child. How old they are, their ability to process something terrible without being traumatized, and their fondness for museums in general should all factor in your decision.
Some kids could maybe handle it at age 8 or 9, while others will be crying or making inappropriate jokes at 16. The Museum recommends only children 11 and older visit the Historical Exhibit where the most disturbing displays are located.
I will warn you that if you have a feisty kid, who is not good at “inside voice” or is always running to the next thing, then you will definitely feel out of place here. More than any other museum (or even library) I can remember, this place is quiet. It seems to be an understood general gesture to the lives lost rather than a direct mandate upon entering but it is well followed. Visitors speak in hushed tones and everyone moves a little more slowly, giving time to read the exhibits and look at the faces of the victims.
The other factor I would take into consideration is the crowds. I visited on 9/12 and thought it must have been so crowded due to the proximity to 9/11 but the guard assured me that it was actually very slow that day. I can’t imagine it being even more crowded and trying to keep up with a child. I visited with 6 adults, and we split up because it was too difficult to try and stay together. It was hard to read some of the plaques or watch the videos due to the people gathered around them. The way the museum is set up is not conducive to large numbers of people being able to view something simultaneously.
For another good, in depth review of the museum from an anthropologist’s point of view, take a look at this blog. It is a very good read.
Take Home Message
The 9/11 Museum is absolutely a place I would visit at least once in your life to learn more about this devastating event and its place in American history, as well as to remember those who died. Now that my nieces and nephews are older (9,11, 13), I plan on visiting the Museum with them on our next trip to New York. I will do a lot of explaining ahead of time and hopefully be ready with some answers for the questions I know they will have. But just because an event is hard to explain or unpleasant to remember doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Ticket Information & Directions
Buy a ticket ahead of time. The lines for walk- ups was crazy long. Tickets cost $24 adult; $20 seniors, students, and young adults 13-17; $18 Veterans, $15 youth 7-12; free under 7, active military, and 9/11 family members.
Aim for the first tickets of the day as you will be able to see much more of the exhibits without hordes of people around you. The lines for the theater showings will hopefully be much shorter as well. We only had time for one showing as the lines were at least 20 minutes wait each. (We had tickets for 1pm, probably the busiest time of day. In hindsight we should have booked another time.)
If you do not book a ticket online before your visit, look for the automatic ticket machines in the wall of the museum facing Greenwich Street and the Oculus station. I was amazed to see so many people standing in line waiting when they could have walked around the corner to buy a ticket.
To get to the museum: Take the subway to the new, architecturally stunning Oculus, the transit hub for the new World Trade Center. It is a beautiful station, worth a visit in and of itself. There are signs for the Museum and the 9/11 Memorial Plaza as you walk through the station. Just follow them and you will come out across the street from the museum.
Before You Go
Do some research before your visit and have your kids do some as well. The website for the 9/11 Museum has a page of resources for talking to children about terrorism, a children’s guide to the museum, and some teaching guides tailored for school visits but would easily work for a family visit as well. These resources will help you begin the conversation.
Spend some time going through the Virtual Tour available on the museum’s website. It will help you understand the layout of the building and give you the best idea of what the exhibits hold.
Expect to spend 1-2 hours visiting the museum. It can be emotionally draining so for some an hour might be all they can handle.
Other Attractions Nearby That Also Tie into 9/11 History
Do spend time walking around the 9/11 Memorial directly outside the museum— it is a graceful and tranquil plaza containing trees, benches, and the two large waterfalls marking the original footprints of the Twin Towers. Every victim’s name is inscribed around the waterfalls and the sheer size and sound of the water will leave a lasting impression.
Look for the Survivor’s Tree next to the South Pool of the Memorial. It is the pear tree with the metal guard rails around it. The tree was found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, badly broken and charred but nursed back to health by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. It appears to be doing very well now and has gorgeous blooms in the spring. Its renaissance makes me happy.
St. Paul’s Chapel
Walk one street over to St.Paul’s Chapel and take a look around the “little church that stood.” Despite being so close to the destruction, St.Paul’s managed to avoid damage, partly because a huge sycamore tree in the graveyard, which was toppled by the original blast, protected the church from ensuing flying debris.
This little church, founded in 1766, has seen so much of American history from George Washington to now. After 9/11, it became a place of rest and comfort for the firefighters, rescue and recovery workers. Donations poured in as well as volunteers who came to cook and care for the workers, everybody from counselors to podiatrists. It remained a relief center for the workers for 9 months.
Walk around the cemetery where Revolutionary War veterans are buried and see the Bell of Hope, a gift from St. Paul’s sister church in London. The bell is rung on 9/11 every year and also periodically to commemorate other terrorist attacks in the world, such as the Mumbai bombings or the shootings in Norway.
Take a look inside the simple yet elegant church. The small Chapel of Remembrance is devoted to 9/11 and contains some pictures and items from the estimated 3,000 workers who came here.
The church and graveyard are open 10am-6pm. You will have to pass through a metal detector to enter the church. Free tours are offered Fridays at 3pm.
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