An Emotional Journey—The New 9/11 Tribute Museum

The new 9/11 Tribute Museum—with exhibits designed by Lee H Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership with Unified Field—invites visitors to gain an understanding of the powerful personal experiences of the 9/11 community, whose resilience, recovery and motivation to give back to society is a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.


In September of 2006, the September 11th Families’ Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit, set up a small storefront called the 9/11 Tribute Center, which was located adjacent to the Ground Zero site. It was one of the few places where the public could get information about what happened, grieve and process the events of that day before the memorial and memorial museum were completed in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

One of the aspects of the center that really set their organization apart was personal tours of the Ground Zero site led by volunteer groups, including locals, survivors, first responders and family members of victims who provided a first-person narrative view.

Ten years later, the association was looking to expand their educational and exhibition programming. They found a three-floor space in a mixed-use building, South of the former World Trade Center site on the corner of Greenwich and Rector Streets, which allowed them to have a generous office space, 10,000-square-feet for exhibitions and additional space for classrooms on a lower level.

The new 9/11 Tribute Museum is anticipated to serve 750,000 to 1 million visitors per yearThe former Center had 4.1 million visitors from 138 countries and had given over 346,000 tours by the time it closed earlier this summer. Where the Center told the story of the 9/11 attacks through survivors, residents and family of victims, the new museum’s stated goal is to “expand to include focus on the long-term emotional recovery and rebuilding and the humanitarian activism in response, as 9/11 foundations are continuing an inspirational legacy of the unity and service of America.”


Building a Narrative

LHSA+DP was one of three firms invited to give a proposal for the space. When they went in to interview, the potential impact of the project was clear. It resonated strongly with the LHSA+DP team as New Yorkers, even fifteen years after 9/11. “The healing process is still ongoing,” points out Lee Skolnick, FAIA, founder and principal of LHSA+DP. “That’s what this project is all about—people turning an unimaginable horror into something positive.”

The LHSA+DP office is just a few blocks from Ground Zero and the new location for the Tribute Museum—an area where a lot of large-scale planning and development have happened since that tragic day, including a memorial, a memorial museum and, of course, the new World Trade Center complex. “The reconstruction projects were all big, splashy and political, while this project was smaller, more personal and visceral. It’s not so much about the attacks themselves; it’s about the fact that in the aftermath people came together to help each other,” notes Skolnick.

Their team had a great working relationship with fellow New Yorkers, Unified Field—who they brought in to help with the interactive and video media components of the exhibitions. The strength of their feelings about the project and their design proposal in combination with their portfolio landed the team the project.

The timing was ideal. Says Skolnick: “This project came at a time when we felt we could contribute something very meaningful to society—to give back in an appropriate and profound way. Through the deployment of narrative and design, we can engage people in the story of recovery and the transformative power of service to empower the world to come together to make a better society. The way the 9/11 Tribute Museum’s mission and messages matched our own transformed desire to participate in a dignified and sensitive way is remarkable.”

Developing the new concept for the 9/11 Tribute Museum required a thorough analysis of the client’s needs and the current exhibition’s strengths and weaknesses. The former center, while deeply moving, was not particularly interactive or physically engaging for visitors, so media, interactivity and hands-on activities became a priority for the design team. The interior design and exhibit circulation was considered in the context of a more generous space, accommodating individual visitors, throngs of tourists and school field trips in addition to the assembling of guided tour groups. The nondescript exterior of the building and its distance from Ground Zero also came into play, requiring a plan for a more eye-catching street presence.

As the work started in April 2016, the design team became immersed in the work and mission of the September 11th Families’ Association and the 9/11 Tribute Museum from the outset, beginning their research with reviewing site surveys conducted at the former museum, meeting with some of the project’s stakeholders and constituents and developing a circulation flow plan. The research extended to visiting and assessing other museums and visitor centers with humanitarian, civil rights, charitable and conscience-based missions, some of which their team had worked on personally. The result was a discovery of what may work and, more importantly, what wouldn’t. “We didn’t want it to be cloying. This isn’t about reducing people to tears; it’s about inspiring people to take meaningful action to contribute to a better, more peaceful world,” states Skolnick.

The research naturally included tours of and visits to the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which, according to the design team, does a remarkably thorough job of presenting the events of the day of the attacks—something that the client aimed to build upon, not replicate. The team also interviewed several Tribute Center volunteers, all first-person storytellers and whose oral accounts are part of the driving narrative that sets the Tribute Museum apart from the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. “This organization has become an archive of narratives, through recording survivors, family members and affected persons—not just about what happened immediately after the attacks—who’ve gone on to start organizations and have done a lot of good in the world,” reflects Jeff Miller, director of programming at Unified Field.

The concept for the exhibit and space manifested quickly. “We looked at the story the client wanted to tell and it became clear that this was a story of darkness to light, chaos to peace and jagged edges to something no longer about physicality. We did sketches of the concepts and presented them to near-immediate approval,” remembers Skolnick. The design approach featured three prominent elements: dark-to-light, jagged-to-smooth and solid-to-air.

These metaphors would manifest in the space architecturally through a dark, twisting space that opens to a central light-filled, elliptical space inspired by ripples in water—a representation of the impact that even small works of service can have on the larger community. The ripple symbolism actually began as a seeding dandelion, whose seeds spread far and wide, hence the “Seeds of Service” title. Midway through the project, the client group decided ripples were more apt imagery but the moniker stuck, as did the floorplan.


Curation and Creation

The Tribute Museum project came with its own unique challenges. Naturally, as the museum receives non-English speaking visitors from around the world, the use of large visuals and limited text were important to help make the information as accessible as possible. In some cases, the media content was augmented to accommodate multiple language options.

The physical space itself was challenging because the exhibits are located on the second floor where ceilings are low, there are many columns and access to natural light is limited. To combat these challenges, the design team sought to keep the space as open as possible, creating an axis and sightlines that allow views from one exhibit area to another and move visitors through the experience via the use of visual cues.

The majority of the content of the museum is sensitive, layered and nuanced, which complicated the task of both the Unified Field and LHSA+DP teams. The client group felt it was necessary to give voice to every group affected by 9/11 to include each division of each government and first-responding agency, which added significant complexity.

For the video and interactive exhibits, properly telling the stories was the most important challenge. Because of the subject matter and strong emotions attached, all the content was very carefully considered by the design and client team. The media went through a rigorous review and editing process to achieve the right tone for a variety of audiences. “It was very challenging to find the right balance for the narrative. The audience includes many international visitors and young people, who were not witness to the events. It was important to communicate the events of day and the immediate aftermath, but equally important to express hope for the future and our part in creating the future”, explains Miller.

Unified Field created a host of interactive media for the exhibits, including the Seeds of Service media wall, six oral history stations, a video lobby display, digital signage and five linear media gallery films. The oral history stations are touch-screen kiosks tied to mini PCs that display navigable video interviews with accompanying information. The movie content plays on BrightSigns and the Seeds of Service wall is run by a PC in the server room. All of the displays and interactives are tied into a central network that allows curatorial staff to easily edit, add and move content.

The refining and narrowing of subject matter was the longest process of the project for all involved. Because of the tremendous sensitivity of the subject matter and people involved (which included families of those lost) about how exactly the exhibits would present information, the design team closely collaborated with the capable curatorial staff of the museum to help make delicate yet critical content decisions. The Unified Field team mitigated this issue by setting up the media and interactives with the express purpose of allowing the curators to easily modify the content going forward. Flexibility was an important feature for curators to provide evolving content and to be able to meet requests by the families of victims.


Giving Voice

The exhibition is unique for many reasons, but one of the most striking is the voice. From the beginning, there was a desire by the client group for almost all of the interpretation to be done in the first person. “About ninety percent of what you experience is from the perspective of individuals: in graphics, in media, different types of signage and photographs. So the story comes together in a very interesting way because we elected not to have a ubiquitous institutional narrative voice. To the greatest extent possible, you get this synthesis of all the other voices, which form the larger story,” clarifies Skolnick.

The 9/11 Tribute Museum experience is designed to function on two levels, a cursory level for those who are taking a tour and have roughly 30 minutes to spend with the exhibits and a deeper level for those interested in listening to the oral histories. From the street, visitors enter into the first floor lobby—where reception, ticketing and the retail area are located—then ascend to the exhibit space.

The exhibit space opens with a corridor called “Lower Manhattan: Where the World Meets” that functions as a timeline starting with the development of lower Manhattan through the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and concluding with September 11, 2001. This portion of the exhibition was specifically developed with school groups in mind, as it ties into local history curricula. It also helps provide context for foreign tourists who may not have an understanding of U.S. history.

Next, the visitor is funneled through a narrow area where audio introduces them to the 2001 attacks. At the end of that hallway, visitors can see a twisted beam from the wreckage that foreshadows the content of the first gallery. Inside, the lighting is kept low as three videos detailing the events of September 11, 2001 play, and next to each one is a large display case with various objects recovered from Ground Zero. The walls are dark with jagged geometries, and the graphic content is noticeably minimal.

The second gallery is the “Response and Recovery Gallery,” where the first-person narrative begins. Each storyteller is represented on a totem and surrounded with artifacts, mostly related to the emergency services. Adjacent to this area is an elliptical acoustically-controlled space where the onsite programs with docents take place.

When there is no live programming happening, longer-form video content plays there on a loop. Beside the storytelling pod is a small room called the “Remembrance Room,” where physical snapshots and photographs of victims that have been donated by their families are displayed in a collage format behind glass walls.

The gallery entitled “Rebuilding and Remembering,” shows how Manhattan began to plan and reconstruct, including a prominent architectural model and featuring content on how the business and residential communities recovered as well as an outpouring of support from around the country and the world.

The backdrop of this gallery is a wall inscribed with the names of all of the nearly 3,000 victims, organized by location of their untimely end. Interspersed with the names are video screens that cycle through 1,800 portraits honoring the victims. “When you approach this huge wall, full of the names and photos of the victims you instantly understand the weight of this loss,” says Miller.

“Service to the World” is about the Tribute Center itself, its origins, its founders and the impact the association has had by way of spurring the formation of other organizations or charitable missions, but the penultimate experience for visitors is the “Seeds of Service” gallery where visitors are asked to give back to their community.

The elliptical space is bright with natural daylight, in keeping with the themes of dark-to-light and a ripple effect. The largest media in this gallery is a multi-screen Seeds of Service media wall, which features dynamic data visualizations that illustrate the positive power of individuals performing charitable service around the world along with social media feeds and visitor’s hand-drawn cards. The media wall draws data from a nearby photo station kiosk where visitors, take selfies to record their personal contribution or pledge of service. This real-time data is immediately displayed as beautiful visualizations of visitors by age, country and type of service they provided or committed to. Visitors provide their contact information and stay connected to this committed community.

There is also an analog version—a card-writing table in the middle of the space. “People respond by writing and drawing the most amazing stuff on the cards and many of them are displayed in the gallery space,” adds Scott Briggs, senior associate for museum services at LHSA+DP. From there, visitors exit through the lobby where they entered.


Legacy of Service

The 9/11 Tribute Museum opened in the middle of June 2017, having only closed for two months of the 14-month-long process. For the September 11th Families’ Association, the museum has provided additional space for programming and administration, a gathering place for the association’s community and a platform for them to share their personal experiences with the public, as well as the opportunity for improved education experiences for visitors.

For visitors, the new Museum provides a means to emotionally connect with the people who directly experienced the 9/11 tragedy and its aftermath and become inspired to give back through acts of service to others.

For the design team, the project has also provided a conduit to contributing to society’s healing and growth in a meaningful and long-lasting way. “We are most gratified by the opportunity that this project gave us to offer our own contribution to the healing and inspiration to do good for the survivors, the responders, the community, the city and the country. To the extent to which the experience we designed will help and inspire others to transform grief and anxiety into a desire to offer meaningful service will stand as its greatest achievement,” concludes Skolnick.



Project Name:  9/11 Tribute Museum

Client:  9/11 Tribute Museum; September 11 Families’ Association

Location: New York

Open Date: June 2017

Project Area: 10,000 sq ft

Exhibition Design: LHSA+DP

Interactive Experience Design: Unified Field, Inc.

Exhibit Fabrication: Maltbie, Inc., A Kubik Company

Collaborators:  Unified Field, Inc. (media), McCann Systems (media systems integration), Innovative (media systems integration), Melanie Freundlich Lighting Design (lighting), Cerami (acoustical design), Reidy Contracting Group (general contractor)

Architect: Huntsman Architectural Group

Photos: Jonathan Wallen


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