Amy Weisser ’86 spends her days preparing memories of a day we can’t forget

Photos: Michael Falco/Black Star
Photo: Michael Falco/Black Star
Photo: Michael Falco/Black Star

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.”

These “tridents,” remnants of the skeleton of the twin towers, will stand at the entrance of the Memorial Museum.
These “tridents,” remnants of the skeleton of the twin towers, will stand at the entrance of the Memorial Museum.
Photo: Michael Falco/Black Star

More than 5,200 designs were submitted for the Sept. 11 memorial, which was won by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker for their design “Reflecting Absence” in 2004. Since then, the project has undergone significant changes and has received mixed reviews. In 2006, Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times’ architecture critic, faulted the memorial’s developers for opting to create an underground museum instead of allowing visitors to descend to a below-ground memorial, as originally was planned. “It will now be the separate 120,000-square-foot underground memorial museum that will serve as de facto memorial, since that is where most visitors will directly confront the tragedy of Sept. 11,” Ouroussoff wrote. “In putting most of the emphasis on the museum, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg got it exactly wrong: They traded the memorial’s silent evocation of loss for the more literal experience of the relics.”

In recent years, public criticism of the memorial museum has diminished, with a few exceptions: Earlier this year, the museum was criticized for a proposal to charge as much as $20 for admission. Weisser says a final decision on what to charge for admission to the museum (if anything) has yet to be made, though access to the memorial will be free.

The decision to build both a memorial and museum on the site of the attacks is in keeping with a larger trend. Historically, memorials did not tell the full story of the event they memorialized. At Concord and Lexington, Little Big Horn, and any number of Civil War sites, memorials served as places in which to reflect and pay tribute to the fallen. Over time, however, memorials have sought to provide a fuller account of the event they seek to commemorate. So, in the wake of the bombing in Oklahoma City, the city built both a memorial and a museum, and others have followed its lead. Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which soon will be supplemented by an underground ­museum.

“The fear of forgetfulness is part of the urge to memorialize,” says Edward Linenthal, author of The Unfinished Bomb­ing: Oklahoma City in American Memory and Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. “The instability of memorialization, the fact that we always have to say ‘always remember’ or ‘never forget’ ... bears witness to the instability of memory.”

The urge to memorialize Sept. 11 began soon after the attacks. People lit candles and posted pictures of their loved ones who had died. Union Square, a public park a few miles from Ground Zero, became a garden of flags and flowers. Other impromptu memorials cropped up in parks and subway stations.

Scott L. Malcomson, the author of Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11, remembers the patchwork of memorials as “essentially group artwork by the city.”

“It was incredible at the time. It was hard to believe how many people were involved,” Malcomson says. “New Yorkers ... lived the memorializing of the events pretty intensely and on a pretty incredible scale.”

The Sept. 11 museum seeks to capture that spirit in an installation dedicated to vigils around the world. It is one of many narrative strands Weisser had to weave into the larger story of Sept. 11. When she was hired in 2006, plans for the museum still were mostly a laundry list of what had to be included: the story of the rescue workers, of the victims, of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Weisser’s job, as senior exhibition developer from 2006 to 2009 and then as director of exhibition development, was to find a way to tell that story that not only was fair to the facts, but also allowed the story to evolve over time. “What we are trying to build is a platform that is flexible and can accommodate a history that’s changing,” Weisser explains. “Because one of the things we say around here is that 9/11 is not a historical event yet. It’s not over.

“We are trying to build an institution that recognizes that this is an ongoing event and that doesn’t try to pontificate,” she adds, “but actually tries to lay open the questions so that people have a forum for finding their answers.”

Like most New Yorkers, Weisser has a 9/11 story. After she heard the news from her husband, while she was at work, she returned home to check on her two children. That night, two friends who were stranded in the city slept on her floor. The next day, she heard that the city was collecting extra clothes for rescue workers at the Chelsea Piers recreation complex. She packed some clothes — surely too small to be useful, she thought — and walked west to the piers. An ambulance from Nova Scotia was already there, having driven through the night.

A view of the pavilion through which visitors will enter the underground museum, ­photographed in July.
A view of the pavilion through which visitors will enter the underground museum, ­photographed in July.
Photo: Michael Falco/Black Star

As a museum official with a background in architecture — she wrote her art history dissertation at Yale on American modernist school buildings — Weisser took an early interest in the development of Ground Zero and in 2005 was hired by the Lower Man­hattan Development Corp. (LMDC), the agency charged with rebuilding the site in the wake of the attacks. Before that, she had worked for the New York City Depart­ment of Cultural Affairs.

In 2006 she moved from the LMDC to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In her early days at the museum, when she told people what she did, they rarely asked for more detail. In a way, New Yorkers seemed to be moving on from the attacks. Meanwhile, Weisser found herself in a job where she had to think about that awful day over and over again. Over time, though, she discovered that this was not a bad thing.

“There were times, early when I was working here, when I would say a good day at the office was when I would cry,” Weisser remembers. “Because that meant I was looking at the actual material, not doing administrative work.”

Weisser walks by what will be a reflecting pool inscribed with the names of 9/11 victims.
Weisser walks by what will be a reflecting pool inscribed with the names of 9/11 victims.
Photo: Michael Falco/Black Star

The challenge she faced was to collect that material — photographs and video from the site, posters and other ephemera, audio recordings and art inspired by that day — and use it to build a compelling narrative.

It is a huge project, but Weisser has a keen eye for detail and the ability to keep several projects on track at once. In addition to regular meetings with her staff and the museum’s director, Alice Greenwald, Weisser works with a wide variety of people, including fabricators (the specialists hired to build the exhibits), writers, photographers, filmmakers, and computer programmers. She has developed a close relationship with FBI officials who have provided guidance. She edits text for the exhibits and meets with individuals interested in donating items. She visits the museum work site about once a week.

“Understanding how to connect the dots ... that’s what my job is,” Weisser said. “It’s my job to know when I can ­represent the [museum’s] director in a conversation, and when I need to bring her into it because I can’t represent her adequately.”

When it is complete, the museum will feature a mix of objects recovered from the site and multimedia installations telling the story behind the attacks and their aftermath. Among the hundreds of artifacts on display will be a damaged fire truck from FDNY Ladder 3; two mangled pieces of steel from the spot where the plane hit the north tower; the “survivor stairs,” which allowed hundreds of people to escape from the World Trade Center Plaza; and the remnants of the north tower’s antenna. In the museum’s introductory exhibition, visitors will hear a “soundscape” of audio recordings of people from around the world remembering 9/11 and what they were doing that day.

As the museum came together, Weisser and her team struck up a relationship with their counterparts at the Okla­homa City National Memorial & Museum. While on a visit to Oklahoma City, Weisser heard the story of a survivor of the bombing who, on 9/11, made her way to the Oklahoma museum because that was the only place she could process such a terrible event.

“That’s a really powerful role for a museum to play,” Weisser says. “To be a place that you go to to understand what’s happening in the world around you — that’s what we aspire to do here as well.”

The story of 9/11 is hotly contested, with victims’ families, rescue workers, and media critics, among many others, trying to influence how it should be told. How much time should be spent on the perpetrators of the attacks? (Their story will be included, but not “glorified or valorized,” Weisser says.) Should the museum show video footage of the attackers as they pass through airport security? (Still to be determined.) Should it display pictures of the people who jumped from the upper floors of the towers?

That last question has proved to be particularly delicate, so much so that the museum has yet to reveal how it will be addressed. As with other sensitive issues, the museum sought feedback from a broad group of consultants. They “universally agreed that it was part of the story and absolutely must be acknowledged,” Weisser says, declining to specify how exactly the story will be told.

Another difficult issue facing the curators is how to deal with religious imagery. At the end of July, a New Jersey-based group known as American Atheists filed a suit objecting to the placement of a cross made of steel beams in the museum. The cross was found in the wreckage and has stood for five years at a nearby church.

The atheists object to erecting the cross on government property. Weisser defends the decision to include it, saying it reflected one way people dealt with the events of Sept. 11: through religion. The museum seeks to honor those experiences while “making it clear we are reporting, not advocating.”

“These are very, very difficult issues to navigate,” says Linenthal, reflecting on the challenges faced by Weisser and her team. “I think it calls upon every creative and empathetic bone in one’s body to do this work.”

Weisser deals with these stresses in different ways: Sometimes her voice breaks, as when she recounts the story of a widow who refused to go to sleep on the night of Sept. 11 “because as long as I was awake, it was still a day I had shared with Sean.” At other times, Weisser sees the events of 9/11 through the prism of motherhood. Her two children, who were 4 and just shy of 1 on Sept. 11, are wholly different people now.

More often, though, she seems to take solace in her role as a professional. She knows she has a responsibility to take the long view, to listen to individual stories but also finally to fit them into the whole. She feels a responsibility to the families of victims, but also to the rescue and cleanup workers, to clergy, politicians, and law-enforcement officials and, more generally, to all the citizens of New York.

“I hope that the museum in some ways is part of people’s own individual healing,” she says, “of coming to reconcile themselves with the events of 9/11.”

It is an awesome responsibility, but the goals of the museum are nothing if not ambitious. In addition to helping people to heal, Weisser hopes that it will prompt visitors to reflect on what it means to be a responsible citizen, to be engaged in the wider world.

“I also hope that on an individual level, people come to understand, while we may not be able to protect ourselves and our loved ones from terrorist attacks,” she says, “it’s our responsibility to create the world that we want to live in.”

Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97 is online editor at America ­magazine.