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One of the Financial District’s most important sights, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is understandably also one of its most popular. In high season, the roped switchbacks in front of the museum’s ticket office and entrance fill with people. There’s something to be said for seeing this institution while surrounded by others; it memorializes a shared national trauma. But a large crowd starts to diminish the experience.
In order to have a quiet, contemplative visit in this sacred-feeling space, we booked a guided “Early Access” tour at 8 a.m., an hour before the museum’s official opening time. It cost more than the usual admission, $70 per person instead of $17 to $29, but it was well worth it.
Only a dozen of us accompanied our guide, Gabi, who provided the group with headsets. They allowed us freedom of movement and her to speak at a normal volume. The tour was excellent. She talked to us in an even tone with no dramatics, letting the horrifying events of the day speak for themselves. I felt all the more moved as she related the unembellished facts.
Most of the museum is underground, set between the two memorial fountains that mark the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. We descended to a landing overlooking a vast and silent gallery, devoid of people and bordered on one side by a section of the original slurry wall, built to prevent the Hudson River from flooding the cellars of the towers. Gabi illuminated the fascinating engineering challenges that were overcome to build the towers and, more important, offered valuable insight and context regarding the art and artifacts on display.
We paused in front of “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning,” by Spencer Finch, a monumental work of 2,983 squares, each a watercolor painted a different shade of blue. It evokes the perfectly clear sky of that day and reminds us that each of the 2,983 victims was a unique individual (the number includes both 9/11 victims and those killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). The immense physical size of the piece is a testament to the enormity of the human loss.