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9/11 Tribute museum offers hopeful take on tragic events

Guests and passersby pause to observe a moment of silence for those who were lost on September 11, 2001. Image by Elizabeth McCauley.

Guests and passersby pause to observe a moment of silence for those who were lost on September 11, 2001. Image by Elizabeth McCauley.

A somber crowd gathered outside the 9/11 Tribute Museum in downtown Manhattan, one block away from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks, to reflect on a surprising subject: hope.

The gathering took place this past June in honor of the official opening of the 9/11 Tribute Museum, a project of the September 11th Families’ Association. The family and friends of victims comprised most of the crowd, but survivors, first responders, and firemen who experienced the events first-hand participated, too. Speakers and event organizers emphasized resiliency and recovery, rather than rumination.

The tone of the opening ceremony followed curators’ intentions for the museum, which were to expand existing 9/11 memorial sites by providing a space where survivors and witnesses could share both painful memories and stories of healing. “The new museum was inspired by hearing the stories of the visitors who came to the memorial,” said Jennifer Adams-Webb, CEO and co-founder of the Museum. “[Our volunteers] stepped forward to transform our message from hurt to healing to resiliency.”

The Tribute Museum was organized with the help of nearly 900 volunteers, including many who witnessed or experienced the attacks firsthand. The first iteration of the Tribute Museum opened in 2006 as a temporary exhibit called the 9/11 Tribute Center. But this month’s opening expanded the Tribute Center by relocating it to a permanent space, with room for several new exhibitions. In addition to providing a timeline of events and galleries featuring photographs and video footage, the museum now offers extensive information about the local and national response, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. While visitors learn the history of the attacks and their aftermath, museum employees and volunteers provide walking tours, sharing their own stories with visitors from around the world through “Person to Person Histories.”

The new exhibits and tours explore how the attacks changed the United States and its people. Walking through the halls of the museum, the first exhibit presents emotionally wrenching accounts of the attack, while subsequent exhibits emphasize healing and recovery. Lee Ielpi, a decorated member of the New York City Fire Department and co-founder of the museum, said that he hopes the museum will “bring visitors from darkness to light” so that they can “experience the progress of rebuilding.”

Ielpi views the museum as “an incredible place of hope, and not hope that is unrealistic.” These words bear particular weight on Ielpi, who lost his son Jonathan, also a firefighter, in the attack. Ielpi spent three months searching the debris surrounding the Twin Towers before recovering his son’s remains. Today, Jonathan Ielpi’s firefighting gear is on display in the Tribute Museum, near a wall that bears the faces of the 1,113 victims (40% of those who died) whose remains were never recovered. Ielpi says that he feels “lucky” he was able to recover his son’s body in one piece.

The Ielpi family’s experiences reflect how the tragedy of September 11th has impacted families across generations. For instance, many of the museum’s volunteers and employees got involved with the project because their family members were affected by the events of 9/11. Though she is too young to remember the days’ events in detail, 21-year-old Jakea McKenzie, an operations manager at the museum, said she got involved with the museum “after growing up hearing [her] dad tell family and friends about what he had been through.” Since the attacks, Mckenzie’s father (who served as a first responder) has dealt with severe respiratory issues that continue to affect his quality of life. “He’s doing a bit better now,” McKenzie said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

From the part-time volunteers to those who worked for years to bring the museum to fruition, everyone involved with the project said that the 9/11 Tribute Museum helped them in their personal recovery.

The ceremony concluded with a prayer from Imam Khalid Latif, the youngest chaplain in NYPD history and the first Muslim chaplain at New York University. Latif’s closing remarks echoed the 9/11 Tribute Museum’s emphasis on the restorative power of unity and openness. “Where there is hate and bigotry, make us the source of tolerance,” he said, “Where there is chaos and despair, make us the voice of calm.”