The designers and curators of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening in New York City next week, were confronted with a complicated task: creating an experience simple enough for anyone to understand, but not so simple as to alienate those visitors who may have encountered the events of 9/11 first-hand. To accomplish this, the museum leans heavily on the voices of those who witnessed the attacks, whether from the vantage point of lower Manhattan or from a television screen halfway across the world.
This becomes apparent from the outset, as you approach one of the first installations in the museum. We Remember, an audio-visual experience designed by Local Projects—the firm behind the museum’s exhibit design as well as the memorial’s considerate name placement—immediately brings visitors into the moment of 9/11 by using the stories of people who witnessed it from outside New York.
The piece draws on more than 100 interviews from people around the world describing their memories of watching the attacks. The audio environment collages snippets of voices together, allowing the experiences of those witnesses to blend and build on one another. Visually, words from the transcripts of the interviews are clustered together into a map of the world, highlighting the global nature of the event.
"It’s estimated that one-third of the world watched the attacks live and during repeated broadcasts during the day," Local Projects principle Jake Barton tells Co.Design. "The capacity to embody that moment of global witness was critical."
We Remember is designed to be one of the starting points in a slow transition as you descend down a gently sloped ramp into the heart of the museum, located deep underground at the foundation level of the original towers. It begins from afar, with the voices of those who witnessed the attacks from abroad, then proceeds past images of the faces of those seeing the event happen in New York, down to an overlook where finally, visitors see the artifacts of the attacks, like the Last Column (the last column left standing from the towers and the final object removed in the cleanup), for themselves.
"A lot of what Local Projects is doing is taking ideas and turning them into experiences," Barton says. "We wanted visitors to begin their journey with stories of 9/11. We wanted to make an implicit statement that this is a museum that listens to its visitors, that catalyzes remembrance and storytelling, and is literally created out of the fabric of visitors’ own memories."
This was particularly vital considering the nature of 9/11. Because memorializing the event "involves so many people that just went to work that day," Barton explains, "because it’s a terrorist event, it really changes the way in which we tell these stories." Allowing people to tell their own stories "becomes a critical part of the museum experience," he says.
In order to continue telling those stories, We Remember doesn’t have to end with the initial interviews. At the end of their 9/11 museum experience, people can record their own memories in any language, and these new voices can be added into the collage at the museum’s discretion. In this way, the museum can continue to expand and change with its visitors.