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September 05, 2012

September 11 Museum in New York Still Unfinished

by Carolyn Weaver

More than 4 million people have visited the September 11 Memorial in New York City since it opened last year on the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.  Visitors from around the world come to watch the waterfalls rush into the deep footprints of the former World Trade Center Twin Towers and to read the names of those who died, etched in bronze panels surrounding the pools.

But work on the September 11 Museum at the site, which was to open in time for Tuesday's ceremonies marking the 11th anniversary of the attacks, stopped months ago because of financial disputes between the private foundation that owns the Memorial & Museum, and the public Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center site.

Then, late Monday, it was announced that foundation and the government agency reached financial and control agreements that will allow construction to resume within weeks, with a possible opening date late in 2013. 
 
The museum’s steel and glass entry hall is built, but its interior is unfinished, and a sign outside warns visitors away.  Monica Iken, whose husband, Michael, died in the attacks, calls the impasse a disgrace.

"It’s an embarrassment for the world to see," she said.  "They come there, and I’ve been there several times where people come up to me and say, 'Where’s the museum, why is it not open?'  How do you explain that: 'Oh, because we’re fighting over some money?'"

Museum renderings show visitors entering under huge trident beams from the original buildings, and taking escalators down to cavernous galleries that will hold damaged rescue vehicles and a set of stairs down which some survivors fled.  Photographic and sound exhibits will tell the stories of that day and memorialize each of the nearly 3,000 people who died.  There will also be displays telling the story of al-Qaida and the terrorist plotters -- although some family members of those who died, like Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son Jimmy, think those should be limited to side displays in kiosks.

"If you want to see their pictures, let them go into the kiosk and look at their picture," he said.  "But I think you've made it more like a Hall of Fame for the terrorists, and that's the way I feel, by putting their pictures up there."

Museum officials, who refused to be interviewed, reportedly have carefully considered how to present a history that might be traumatic for some visitors, particularly children.  They have deleted images that are too graphic or that show an individual victim’s identity.  The foundation reportedly plans to charge an admission fee of $25, although the memorial will remain free of charge.

But it is a collection that will never be shown that has caused the fiercest controversy -- a refrigerated repository for 9,000 unidentified fragments of human bone and tissue, now held in the New York medical examiner's offices.  It will be seven stories underground, and off-limits to all but family members of the victims and the medical examiner.  Museum visitors will see only a vast wall bearing a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil:  “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

But Jim Riches and members of 16 other victims' families are suing.  He said that only a few family members were consulted by the September 11 Memorial & Museum Foundation about their wishes.  His group wants to poll all of the families on the issue.  Riches says he thinks that most would choose to visit the unidentified remains at a tomb above ground, and not as part of the museum.

"There are no museums in the whole country that put human remains in the museum," Riches says.  "And you also would have to get the permission of the family members to do such a thing."  

Experts on the disposition of Native American bones agree, saying that control of human remains is for group members to decide.  Such a group would include virtually every family that lost a loved one in the World Trade Center attacks because only 40 percent have received even fragments of their loved ones' remains.

But other activists say the question was decided years ago in a consensus process that all the families were welcome to join.

Charles G. Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, died in the attacks, said the families agreed that unidentified remains should be interred "at bedrock," between the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers.  "What they're pushing for is to go against the agreements that we all agreed to back in 2003 and 2004," Wolf said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chairman of the foundation that owns the Memorial & Museum, says the museum repository is needed.  "One of the centerpieces of the museum, in terms of visibility and respect, is where you put the unidentified remains," he said.  "It is not just in a small place, it is in a facility that also has what the medical examiner thinks will be necessary down the road as technology gets better."

Norman Siegel, an attorney for the families who are suing, said that is unlikely.  "No remains have been identified since 2009," he said.

In late August, an atheists' group sued to stop the display of a steel beam cross that became a symbol for the recovery workers at Ground Zero.  The lawsuit contends that the display is an improper government endorsement of religion.  The foundation responded that it is a private, not governmental, organization, and that the cross will be displayed as a historical artifact, not as an object of veneration.