Amy Weisser ’86 walks confidently into the cavernous space below the footprints of the World Trade Center, pointing out enormous objects along the way.
It is a humid July day, but the heat does not dim her enthusiasm. On her way down into the chamber she points to the twin “tridents,” seven-story remnants of the outer skeleton of the twin towers, which will greet visitors as they enter the new September 11 Memorial Museum. Later she arrives at the retaining or “slurry” wall, which held back the Hudson River when the towers collapsed. Next to it is the 36-foot-tall “Last Column,” the final item to be removed from Ground Zero, housed for now in a climate-controlled cocoon. When the museum opens next year, visitors will be able to view the collage of inscriptions and memorials decorating the steel column.
She seems slightly out of place, this petite woman in work boots and safety goggles, but Weisser navigates the work site with aplomb, calling out a friendly greeting to a colleague and proudly pointing out a newly scored mark on the floor. Here, she explains, is the first sign of the historical exhibition that will occupy the space beneath the north tower. A minor development, perhaps, but for the director of exhibition development at The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, it is proof that the project that she has toiled on for close to six years is nearing completion.
“Nearing” is the operative word. The September 11 Memorial was set to open this fall, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Millions of visitors are expected to travel to lower Manhattan to view the twin reflecting pools in the footprint of the fallen towers and peruse the names of the dead. The museum, which will be accessed via a pavilion adjoining the memorial, is still a work in progress; it is scheduled to open Sept. 11, 2012. That is where Weisser’s attention is squarely focused.
“I love the work that I do opening institutions,” says Weisser, who helped open the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History and the Dia:Beacon art museum, both in New York. “People of all sorts of skills and backgrounds coming together with the united target of the deadline of opening this institution — that’s been very powerful on all the projects I have been involved in. But ... I hope that there is never an opportunity to do something that’s more powerful than to work on this.”
The campaign to memorialize the events that began when the first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m. has taken a circuitous route. From the beginning, observers knew that there would be a memorial, but what would it look like? In the intervening years, hundreds of memorials — more than 400 in all — have been built, many on the East Coast, but also in unexpected places like Kingdom City, Mo., and Kaysville, Utah. Memorials also have been built in Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., the sites of the other plane crashes, but the memorial at Ground Zero has become a special object of scrutiny, for both the families of the victims and the larger public.
Plans for the development of Ground Zero have been especially charged by the presence of human remains at the site. The museum will not include any remains, though it is adjacent to a space maintained by the city’s chief medical examiner where remains are kept. A memorial exhibition in the new museum will pay tribute to all of the victims of the attack.
In putting together the museum’s exhibitions, Weisser and her team of about 12 people had to navigate a thicket of thorny issues. Time and again, they sought advice from outside consultants, including family members, survivors, first responders, local community members, and government officials, on how best to handle difficult subjects.
At a panel discussion during Reunions in May, Weisser, an art and archaeology major at Princeton, expanded on how she sees her role at the museum. “We have a particular responsibility to honor the most intimate stories, including tales of those trapped and faced with horrible choices and those who survived harrowing escapes,” she said. “In doing so, we must treat these narratives with great respect while taking care to protect our audience.”