9/11 Memorial Museum design to lessen emotional impact

The National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum, opening to the public today near New York's World Trade Center, is designed to help visitors avoid emotional overload.

New York museum has warnings, tissues and silent rooms to prevent emotional overload

Electronic images of victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are part of the museum, which opened to the public on Wednesday. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

There are prominent videos of the twin towers collapsing and photos of people falling from them. Portraits of nearly 3,000 victims and voice mail messages from people in hijacked planes.

But behind the wrenching sights and sounds of the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum lies a quiet effort to help visitors handle its potentially traumatic impact, from silent spaces and built-in tissue boxes to a layout designed to let people bypass the most intense exhibits.

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      Discreet oak-leaf symbols denote items connected to the dead, and the images of falling victims are in an alcove marked with a warning sign. Designers made sure rooms have ample exits, lest people feel claustrophobic in the underground space. American Red Cross counselling volunteers will even be standing by as the museum opens to the public Wednesday.

      "There's a lot of thought given to the psychological safety of visitors," said Jake Barton, who helped create the exhibits.

      It's the latest in a series of memorials-as-museums that seek to honour the dead while presenting a full, fair history of the event that killed them. And the Sept. 11 museum strives to do that at ground zero while the attacks are still raw memories for many.

      'Really upsetting at points'

      Patricia Smith, 14, found herself looking at her late mother's police shield while touring the museum last week when it opened to victims' families. She found it inspiring, but also "really upsetting at points."

      Museum planners realized early on the challenge of trying not to shatter people "while at the same time being true to the authenticity of the event," said Tom Hennes, founder of exhibit designer Thinc Design.

      Trauma specialists told museum leaders that sounds of voices and images of hands and faces could be particularly distressing and that visitors should get to choose what to see.

      The goal: "to keep it feeling alive and present without making it so alive and present that it's unbearable," says psychologist Billie Pivnick, who worked with Thinc.

      Tissue dispensers, padded walls

      To allow visitors an emotional breather, silent spaces with few artifacts surround the densely packed historical exhibit that follows the timeline of 9-11, set off by a revolving door. Elsewhere, a room where visitors can call up recorded recollections about individual victims was designed as a quiet sanctum for feelings, with tissue dispensers embedded in the benches and acoustically padded walls, Hennes said.

      The historical exhibit — crafted by another firm, Layman Design — envelops visitors in images, information, objects and sounds, but designers sought to avoid emotional overload.

      Ambient sounds of emergency radio transmissions and victims calling home are interspersed with the calmer tones of survivors recounting the day. The hijackers are included, but carefully, in grainy airport-security video and unobtrusive individual photos.

      Dramatic images of towers crumbling

      Still, the display doesn't shy from large projections of the towers crumbling. "It's a dramatic presentation, but I think it's a dramatic moment," explained Barton, whose firm, Local Projects, handled the multimedia components.

      Nearly 2,000 oral histories in the museum give voice to the memories of survivors, first responders, victims' relatives and others.

      Other museums have faced difficult choices presenting the horrors of history.

      The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for example, decided to display photos of hair shorn from people in death camps, but not the hair itself, and ensconced some graphic film footage in "privacy walls" too tall for children to see over.

      Beyond content choices, the Sept. 11 museum hopes a human touch can help visitors grapple with their reactions. Dozens of psychologically trained volunteers for the Red Cross and other disaster-aid groups have been stationed at the museum over its first days. The Red Cross said it has no current plans for them to stay beyond Wednesday.

      Retired social worker Georgine Gorra helped people find their way around the museum after Thursday's dedication ceremony. They didn't seem traumatized, she said, just tearful.

      "We all were, frankly."