“ Address: 420 West 14th Street / Floor 2 / New York / NY 10014 / Tel: 212-209-3370 „
THE BIGGEST LITTLE MUSEUM IN NEW YORK
Having just got back from Boston MA to Newark NJ the previous day and with an 11 pm flight back to Heathrow, inconveniently preceded by a midday check-out time at our hotel, we had all of the hours from after breakfast till around 7.00pm to kill. Newark didn't appeal; neither did being a 'hotel lobby refugee', so we decided to put our bags in store and head back into New York.
Having been there several times before, we decided to track down some new attraction rather than go over old ground.
At this point my wife came across The Ground Zero Museum Workshop, which on the face of it doesn't seem the fit the definition 'attraction' except in the same way that The Anne Frank House does.
There are two things to note about the GZMW.
1. It's not about documenting that awful day in September 2001. I think we've all seen those movie images of the second plane going in, the Twin Towers burning and ultimately collapsing. It's more about the bravery of the emergency services and their continued dogged efforts to find their lost brethren combined with artefacts extracted from the rubble.
2. It's nowhere near Ground Zero being tucked away as it is upstairs at 420 14th Street in the heart of Manhattan's Meat Packing District near the corner with 9th Avenue. Bear in mind that all of their literature, on paper and on line, tells you in no uncertain terms that they are not situated at or near Ground Zero, it's a bit perplexing to find that some twat has left a comment on the Tripadvisor web-site along the lines of "Don't bother - it's not even at Ground Zero!" as if the owners were perpetrating some kind of fraud.
BUT WHY ISN'T IT AT GROUND ZERO THEN?
The museum is situated in a photographer's studio. The Meat Packing District now has a lot of media inhabitants, what with studios and warehouses for TV lighting rental and the like. This particular studio belongs to one Gary Marlon Suson, a professional photographer already at the time of the 9/11 atrocity. It was from the roof of his own building that he was able to rush to capture shots of the Twin Towers from some distance away.
As you can imagine, he wasn't the only photographer trying to document what was happening, both on the day itself and later on too, as the desperate searching through a colossal amount of rubble and twisted metal continued.
However, after one month, Mayor Giuliani declared the site a no-go area for photographers, since it was felt that all there was now to document was the constant discovery of yet another part-body, and in any case, it was thought also to be hampering the operation by allowing the press in.
This is where Mr. Suson comes to the fore. Appointed the official photographer for the Fire Department of New York's Uniformed Fire-fighters' Association, he then found himself the ONLY photographer allowed on site.
The workshop is really just one sizeable room, say 30 feet by 20 (I'm guessing), with informal seating around a video screen, and a combination of free space and display cabinets in the rest of the space. All around the walls are 100 examples of Mr. Suson's work, some brought forward in a kind of cut-out 3D effect.
In view of the limited space, workshop sessions are limited to about 20 people at a time and last for a full two hour time slot, therefore, pre-booking is essential.
ISN'T IT A BIT GRUESOME?
No, the whole concept of the museum is to play down the graphical maybe even voyeuristic side of photo-journalism, and to make the entire thing 'non-graphic and child-friendly', to quote the brochure.
What you are allowed to do is pick up and handle artefacts, within reason. In general you can photograph what you like*, although camcorder use is not allowed. Among the objects are several pieces of glass of varying thicknesses - the glass got thicker towards the top to withstand hurricane force winds. This might not seem much of a 'novelty' until you are told that only enough glass to fill a car boot was ever recovered, the rest having been fused back into globules of silica or ground into sand by the heat of the conflagration and energy released by 2,000,000 tons of building hurtling ground-wards at 120 mph.
(*There is one item you are asked not to photograph - this is a sizeable piece of one of the planes. This request comes after a visit to the museum by a lady who had lost her husband on one of the flights, and this twisted piece of metal was all that gave her any 'closure')
Even more remarkable than the dearth of intact glass, is that the museum has the only computer artefact, a distorted PC keyboard, ever found. Here again, the heat ensured that anything else was turned to dust, which also goes some way to explain why some many fire-fighters damaged their lungs inhaling toxic fumes, some irreparably.
With all this evidence of destruction on a massive scale, it came as something of a relief to find that the twisted, and it has to be said somewhat anachronistic, beer cans on display were only found after concrete was separated from girder. These, it turned out were placed their by the 'high metal men' after a wet lunch back in the 1970's during construction! The thought of these fellows walking around on girders up to 1000 feet off the ground after having a beer or two for lunch beggars belief.
Initially, all guests are handed a headset which, in the case of English-speaking guests gives you a commentary by the photographer himself, although other languages are available.
You don't use this straightaway, as you are seated to watch a video presentation, but here again; it's more aimed at the efforts of the emergency services. I kept thinking, holding back a tear about those brave, brave people who rushed to the scene, when every cell and sinew in your body would be screaming to get the hell out of there.
343 of them, mostly FDNY fire-fighters, paid for their devotion to duty with their lives. Some weren't even rostered - they just went there to help their mates out.
In my experience, the video presentation left everyone stunned into silence, and so the free time following it came as a welcome relief. You were free to wander around, using the headset to give a background to each exhibit. You could choose any order simply by keying in the relevant number of what you were facing. Some of the photographs were taken with a smaller but still high quality camera. This is because Gary went into the ruined subway station against Fire Department advice, and the need for smaller kit was evident as he crouched beneath roofs threatening to crush the last train caught in the wreckage. It's a sobering thought that one day after he took a shot of one of the coaches, the ceiling collapsed still further. He had sat in the train the day before.
The artefacts on show include such things as the slave clock in a subway manager's office whose connection was shaken free at the time of the building collapse, through what was effectively an earthquake of about 2.97 on the Richter scale, with an epicentre that was just yards away. Thus it remains a silent stationary witness to when 'it' happened.
Worth a visit? Most certainly. It's an extremely interesting and thought-provoking experience. Not as a memento of human folly and cruelty, but as a lasting monument to the ability of man to overcome extremes of adversity and fight on.
We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Suson, although his presence at the workshop is by no means guaranteed.
Location: 420, West 14th St, between 9th Avenue and Washington Ave, New York
Bookings: www.groundzeromuseum.com or telephone (+)212-209-3370
The museum is a non-profit-making trust raising money for the children of fallen fire-fighters and cancer charities.
Admission Fee: Adults $25, Seniors and Under-12s, $19