9/11 Memorial Exhibit Uses New Media to Impart Terrorism’s True Impact

The 9/11 Memorial exhibition honors each of the nearly 3,000 lives lost.

Local Projects

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
1 Albany Street

New York City

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Many things distinguish the 9/11 Memorial Museum from similar institutions, foremost among them the museum’s buried location, 70 feet deep, in the hallowed ground where the World Trade Center stood. Also notable is the twofold nature of its mission: to document the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, as historic events, as well as to honor each of the 2,983 individuals whose lives were lost. Curatorially, the museum faced an exclusively contemporary dilemma. “How do you make use of the kinds of media resources that are available at the start of the twenty-first century that would not be available if you were doing a museum of the Civil War?” asks Alice Greenwald, the museum’s director. “We have real-time audio recordings of first responder transmissions, of people on the planes calling loved ones, of people inside the towers. We have a tremendous amount of documentation, and that gives us an opportunity and a challenge.”

Jake Barton’s New York–based media design firm Local Projects seems tailor-made for working with material of such immediacy, particularly in telling personal stories. Already known for its work on an oral history project called StoryCorps, the firm won the job of designing the exhibits of the Memorial Museum, serving as one half of a team led by Thinc Design. When the museum opens in September 2012, echoes of StoryCorps will be evident to anyone entering the 9/11 Memorial exhibition, a room where some 3,000 portraits line the walls and a central chamber plays audio accounts provided by loved ones. “It becomes a space to truly understand the impact of terrorism,” Barton says. “When you think about the number—around 3,000 people—that’s quite a bit. But it’s not until you see the wedding photographs and the graduation pictures and hear these very intimate oral histories that you recognize that these are people just like you. That’s, of course, the shape of terrorism.”

Tap the portrait of Johnnie Doctor Jr. at one of the interactive tables facing the wall of portraits, and you see photos of the 32-year-old naval officer with his wife Andrea, with her children, and with the basketball team he coached. You learn that he gave Andrea a wake-up call from the Pentagon that morning. Select “Play Profile” and enter the central chamber to hear her offer these words: “Johnnie had such a gorgeous smile, and he had long eyelashes that any woman would die for. When I met him, my daughter was three and my son was six, and he raised them. So it was something out of a fairy tale.”

When Reflecting Absence, the twin pools and plaza of the Memorial, opens this month, visitors will experience some of Local Projects’ efforts in the form of the Memorial Guide, an online resource and mobile app that lets you search for a group of people—the 87 passengers on board Flight 11, the 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald—or locate an individual name on the bronze parapets surrounding the two pools. The firm collaborated with the data artist Jer Thorp on the algorithm that helped group the names according to what the Memorial’s architect, Michael Arad, calls “meaningful adjacencies”—firefighters, for example, or two people who are known to have died together. “We had over 1,200 adjacency requests,” says Arad, whose team further fine-tuned the placements. “Where a name appears on the Memorial is more than a marker, it’s a grave site and the site of their death.”

In fact, all of the technology Local Projects produced, while functionally sophisticated, is subtle enough to remain in the background, and intentionally so. Their aim was to keep visitors’ attention firmly on each of the 2,983 individuals. “It’s not about the flash and the new techniques,” Greenwald says. “It’s using those techniques in the service of telling the story. We are introducing you to these people, and what you will find is that they are just like us, ages two-and-a-half to 85, from every sector of the economy, every color of the rainbow, people who were going about their lives and got caught in the cataclysm through no fault of their own. It puts into bold relief that an act of terrorism anywhere is an assault on all of us.”

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