There are stories whose end we know, but we keep retelling them. There are stories we retell because their meaning runs so deep. There are stories so deep we will never know the whole thing, so we retell them to reveal more.
The story told at the 9/11 Memorial Museum is all of the above. You literally immerse yourself in this story, stepping down stairs flanked by the remnants of the World Trade Center’s iconic columns, journeying to the towers’ very foundations.
Like an archaeology dig, the story reveals itself in layers: first the geopolitical winds that swirled around the buildings’ births and deaths, then their concrete and steel roots, then the dreamers who conceived and worked in them, then the photos, voices, wreckage, and relics of that horrible day.
We all remember where we were when we first heard the news. We all remember the huddles around TVs, watching together as this nightmarish story unfolded. The Memorial, which attracted 5.6 million visitors in its first two years, brings each of us back to that place. Once again we collectively witness disaster. Once again, we individually try to make sense and test our theories in quick conversations with our neighbors.
There were parts of the story I had tiptoed around. But the the exhibit confronted me with the evidence — people jumping to escape a fiery death; people assuring loved ones they were safe because the plane had hit the other building; the passengers who called loved ones and authorities in their final minutes. You hear recordings of their voices. The timeline from the first hijack to the final collapse of the North Tower is detailed on a wall as you walk past the photos, the melted firetruck, the twisted beams, the pieces of airplane, the chunk of radio tower that was the last piece to tumble to earth.
I was thankful to visit the memorial with my wife and children. Karen and I had experienced that day in a professional context — she as a journalist and I as a communication leader in a large health organization. Casey had experienced it as a young man — a member of the generation whose lives would be forever shaped by that day. Kai was not yet 1 — an American who will never know the country as it was before that day.
We talk now and then about that visit to the Memorial and the meaning and lessons we each are forming. We had experienced the day separately, but the Memorial allowed us to relive it together in a common time and place. And that helps us co-create meaning and explore the implications for our lives going forward.
Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health.
Steve also is professor of public relations and journalism at Metro State University of Denver.