The Perfect Message of the 9/11 Tribute Museum

In 2006, five years after September 11, the September 11 Families’ Association inaugurated a small museum on Liberty Street called the 9/11 Tribute Center. Through its modest, heartfelt exhibition and its frequent tours and public talks by witnesses and survivors, the center brought an essential humanity to the World Trade Center site, offering the many modern-day pilgrims the opportunity to hear the unmediated testimonies of those who actually experienced that day.

The Tribute Center seemed to suggest that its guests should focus not on debatable abstractions — such as the political motivations for the attacks or the symbolism of the loss of the towers — but should first consider fundamental features of life seen as real and universal: service, sacrifice, love, and personal loss. Visitors were encouraged not to mourn those who died as vast numerical losses or as victims of uniquely horrible deaths, but instead to celebrate the positive features of their lives that family members had hoped to distill and communicate. Thereby, the Tribute Center taught visitors not to contemplate September 11 as an external, “carnal” concern that indicts all or part of humanity, but to consider its memory as an internal, “spiritual” prompting that challenges all of us as individuals to become better. The thousands of beautiful messages that visitors wrote on cards over the years demonstrated the experiential, personal power of the Tribute Center.

Eleven years later in 2017, needing more space to redesign their exhibition after years of reflection, and continuing to commit to a special and necessary purpose after the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the September 11 Families’ Association reopened their museum at 92 Greenwich Street, now as a full and proper “9/11 Tribute Museum.” This new museum is an indispensable destination, especially for parents who want to prompt their children, after contemplating massive loss and dealing with emotions of sadness and anger, to seek the best in themselves.

The Tribute Museum presents the core theme of its exhibition in a single quotation from Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama that one reads on the wall when entering: “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” Despite the intuitive idea that September 11 is the singular, earth-shattering event with far-reaching effects, the exhibition encourages visitors to consider that many other millions of individual actions related to that day have had their own far-reaching effects, which, hopefully in contrast, may actually bring about a better world. In this life, we may not know which actions have been the most consequential in the material sense, but as expressions of love, all actions achieve a fundamental spiritual equality. Examples of individual loving actions in the museum are many and inspiring. The clear hope is that — in tribute to the lives of the family members of its founders — we can all, as individuals, strive for a better world out of deepest love.

The presentation begins not with the confined, expected tragedy of a bright September morning interrupted by an accelerating horror, but with a necessary recognition of who we were and are, and who we aspire to be, as New Yorkers. The exhibition recognizes New York City, and Lower Manhattan specifically, as a ”welcoming light” of hope, of immigration, and of life in all its vibrancy. People from all over the world have come to New York City to establish new lives, and they have admirably succeeded in building the most diverse city on Earth, which somehow moves along everyday rooted in a general respect for cultural and religious difference. In emphasizing the reality of difference and humanizing Arab Americans, this section of the exhibition even includes a small, yet appropriate, recognition that the area to the immediate south of the World Trade Center had once been an Arab American community, known as the Syrian quarter or “Little Syria.”

Through an initial ascent in a context of community, hope, freedom, and light, instead of immediately descending into darkness, the museum seeks to remind us that September 11 does not indict humanity, and that this single day must be contextualized in all of the hope and beauty of life, especially within the lives of the victims to whom we pay tribute.

The historical presentation of the attacks themselves in the museum is direct, clear, and honest; the museum's artifacts testify to the destruction and the loss. No one will be able to deny what happened here, and we shall not forget. Yet there is no desire in the exhibition to dwell or obsess on the horror, the explosions, or the pain. The presentation — largely in well-lit rooms — is not overwhelming or traumatic. At all times it seeks to focus on the loving acts of duty and sacrifice that occurred at every second of that day — by police officers, by firefighters, and by so many other selfless individuals.

The exhibition soon transitions to its fundamental message: about the widespread service after September 11, which ultimately, perhaps surprisingly, will overwhelm and overshadow the attacks themselves. The exhibition explains the role of churches in caring for the rescue and recovery workers — even displaying a local church pew that had been scratched up after use as a bed. Visitors learn how millions of people came together to give blood, to donate supplies, to search the wreckage, and to offer financial and spiritual support. Displays describe the many wonderful foundations established to meet various needs in the wake of the attacks; my own list includes Tuesday’s Children, Voices of September 11th, the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation, H.E.A.R.T. 9/11, 9/11 Day, New York Says Thank You Foundation, Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, the Jérôme Lohez September 11th Scholarship Foundation, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, the Betty Ann Ong Foundation, the Todd Ouida Children's Foundation, and the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.

One of the most inspiring stories in the museum is that of Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, two September 11 widows who founded Beyond the 11th to support the millions of war-time widows in Afghanistan. Patti Quigley has further endeavored to partner with tremendous activist Razia Jan and her Ray of Hope Foundation to support community-based education for young women in Deh'Subz, Afghanistan. These post-September 11 charitable activities continue onward, and they are matched by numerous other inspired efforts to foster understanding between peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Some people have worried that stories of recovery and sacrifice in the memory of September 11 affirm Christian allegories of rebirth, which in a crude form might be manipulated toward nationalism or exceptionalism. The Tribute Museum negates this fear. The museum encourages visitors to cultivate Christ-like values in themselves, asking explicitly in an electronic display how they plan to plant “seeds” of loving service in their own lives. But the museum also affirms indirectly how the same principles of Christ-like service and universal love can be found in other religions, including in Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. There is absolutely no encouragement — explicitly or implicitly — to direct any visitor feelings to division, rage, or vengeance. Ideologues and politicians, of all sides and persuasions, are given no place in the museum to interfere with the fundamental message. Politics, as with everything in life, has its place, but its place is not at this location.

One of the most treasured artifacts of the Tribute Museum is a rare, original origami crane made by Sadako Sasaki of Hiroshima, Japan. Despite the different political contexts of the atomic bombings of Japan and of the September 11 attacks, the museum has the courage to prompt visitors to consider how, at some level, especially for families, all loss is fundamentally the same, perhaps only made more difficult to bear when the cause seems so abstract and so distant. In the spirit of twelve-year-old Sadako, dying of leukemia, who sought to fold 1,000 paper cranes in order to symbolize her wish for peace in the world, the September 11 Families’ Association has offered their own loving work to inspire peace and a better world based in sacrifice, charity, and service.

The museum’s co-founder Lee Ielpi (with Jennifer Adams-Webb) recently said, “We have an obligation – we meaning the public, worldwide – have an obligation to remember 9/11 and to use that as the catalyst to make tomorrow better. If we fail doing that, we fail.” For its part, the 9/11 Tribute Museum has succeeded, and it wisely teaches that, given the power of the ripples of our actions, we can never be quite sure of the measure of our successes or our failures. The message, therefore, is to ground all of our actions in service and love, with the faith that a better world will emerge in the ripples. The Tribute Museum has shown great wisdom and courage in expressing this beautiful — even spiritually perfect — message. All visitors to the World Trade Center site and to Lower Manhattan should make visiting a priority.

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