More than 12 years after the horrifying events that it describes, after countless obstacles, disputes and funding problems, the 9/11 memorial museum is finally preparing to open its doors as a historical record of a New York, American and global story that is still unfolding.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and the chairman of the 9/11 memorial and museum, addressed reporters in the museum’s auditorium at the heart of Ground Zero on Wednesday. He said the museum’s ceremonial opening, which will take place on Thursday in front of President Obama, would be “an important day in our city and our country, and, I would argue, the civilized world, where we value each other’s beliefs and rights to express ourselves.”
The $700m museum had been designed, he said, as a “testament to how we can overcome anything if we stand together as one. It tells the story of how after the attacks our city and nation and people across the world came together and emerged stronger than ever.”
Even as Bloomberg was speaking, a coalition of faith leaders, scholars and Muslim groups were coming together to air their anxieties about how the causes of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 are explained in the museum. In particular, they are objecting to a seven-minute film shown at the end of the museum that they fear does not distinguish clearly enough between the extremist violent beliefs of al-Qaida and the non-violent tenets of the Muslim faith.
Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, said that she had not yet seen the film, as the museum directors had declined to show it in advance of next week’s opening to the public. But she said that she was worried that the video would leave millions of visitors to the museum every year with the impression that a religion with 1.5 billion members was behind the terror attacks.
“Without context, school children and ordinary visitors may conflate Islam with violent extremism. We wholeheartedly support the museum in making al-Qaida part of the story of 9/11, but it has to be clear that al-Qaida is a fringe extremist violent group that is in no way representative of a quarter of the world’s population.”
In response to a reporter’s question, Bloomberg said that the film did not imply that Islam was to blame for the attacks. “Our first job is to tell history as it happened, and in that context we want to make sure that nobody thinks that a billion people who practice a religion were responsible. This was not done by a religion, but the people who perpetrated this horrendous crime followed a radical part of a religion.”
Bloomberg also addressed a couple of the other running sores that have beset the museum in the run-up to its opening. Families of some of the almost 3,000 people who died on 9/11 have objected to unidentified remains of victims found in the rubble of the Twin Towers being stored inside the museum building.
The former mayor said that opposition came from a minority of loved ones. “There are roughly 3,000 families who think this is a good idea, and about a dozen who don’t.”
He also enthusiastically sympathized with those who have complained about the mandatory $24 entry fee that will be charged to all but New York school groups. He urged people to contact their representatives in Congress to complain about lack of federal funding to meet the museum’s $60m annual operating costs.
“We’ve been trying to get federal money to support it, but so far we haven’t been able to, and until we can get the money we have to find it from some place,” Bloomberg said.
Thursday’s ceremonial opening will begin a dedication period in which 35,000 survivors, relatives of victims, emergency workers and local residents will be allowed to explore the museum ahead of the full public opening next week. Their tour will take them past the 36-foot piece of steel known as the Last Column; a section of the World Trade Center’s original slurry wall; the Vesey Street staircase, or “survivors’ stairs”, which provided a survival route for hundreds of people; and the truck used by the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Company 3, all of whose 11 responding members were killed when the North Tower collapsed.
Charles Wolf, 60, said the opening of the museum would be like a funeral service for him. His wife Katherine died aged 40 on the 97th floor of the North Tower, and none of her remains have been found.
Wolf has been intimately involved in the planning of the museum since a few months after the attacks. He said victims’ families had made it clear right at the beginning that there was to be “no sugar coating, no white-wash, no rewriting of history. You tell it like it is, and tell it accurately.”
He added that the museum would be unique because it was dedicated to history that was still being made. “I don’t know of any other museum in the world that has opened so soon after a heinous act occurred.”
The museum sits between the footprints of the Twin Towers, which have been turned into memorial water fountains and pools. Most of the exhibition space is located in the foundations of the stricken skyscrapers, up to 70ftt beneath the ground.
Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director, said the location inside Ground Zero was defining. “We exist inside a space that is an archeological site. This is a museum that contains artefacts, located within a space that is itself an artifact.”