Tribute WTC Visitor Center

The Tribute WTC Visitor Center is described as “sharing personal history of the World Trade Center and September 11, 2001” on its flyer. The most striking word in this description is probably the adjective “personal” – it is not what one usually expects from a museum or a visitor center, but then again the Tribute Center is not a usual visitor center. What is special about it and its kind is the fact that it is a tribute and a way of commemorating, for the most part, one single day. To my knowledge this is unheard of, since usually museums or visitor centers might refer to a specific day, but within a larger context of a historical event. Yet one has to keep in mind that the event of 9/11 is in itself an exception. It cannot be put into a historical context like, for example, Pearl Harbor, as it is a singular event that happened suddenly and was over just as quickly. To use a worn-out expression: it came out of the blue. Of course, one might argue that there were political and religious tensions and that a terrorist attack per se was not as unexpected, but no one could have fathomed what would happen on this day of September 11, 2001. It was a nice day, with perfectly blue skies, which is reflected in the colors of the visitor center. The blue that is also used for the T-shirts of the walking tour guides represents the sky on that day when New York and the American nation were wounded so deeply. The metaphor of the wound has been used widely, but it is probably not appropriate anymore – 9/11 and the site is still present, but unlike a fresh wound, it is not constantly on everyone’s minds. A more fitting metaphor would be a scar, something that immediately triggers memories of that event, without being ever-present. Yet there is a wish to not forget this scar and what it stands for, as the visitor centers, museums and memorials that were built since the attacks show. They offer a physical place to cope with the nation’s trauma – if one regards 9/11 as a cultural trauma – and might offer family members who have no grave to go to a place to grieve. But the Tribute WTC Visitor Center goes beyond remembrance. As mentioned before, it is not just about the scar, but what it stands for. In this way, it does not merely represent the images of 9/11 or recount the stories of tragedy and loss, but it offers hope by emphasizing the aspects of bravery and community, while at the same time promoting dialog. It is one of the numerous examples of attempts to “turn it around”, to make 9/11 into something meaningful and not just a dark day of thousands of innocent deaths.

As the flyer of the Tribute Center states, its galleries “reveal personal stories and authentic experiences of members of the World Trade Center community who recount the events of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001” and they “convey the tragedy and the passionate response of people from around the world.” Again, several words stick out, such as the mentioning of “community” and “response.” What these words hint at is a tribute to more than just a tragedy – the World Trade Center is not reduced to the collapsing Twin Towers, but presented as a working place for many in which a special work atmosphere prevailed and, as the flyer puts it, a community emerged. Whether this is true or not is hard to prove, but what is the point of interest here is the center’s going beyond a mere recounting of the tragedy of 9/11 by putting it into the context of the World Trade Center’s history. This emphasis was also prevalent in the Walking Tour we took, which will be recounted later. To redirect the focus on the center’s build-up or informational design, I pointed out the significance of the aspect of “response” mentioned in the flyer. By including the responses “from around the world,” the attacks are made out to be a shared, global experience, and not “just” the trauma of a nation. This brings to mind David Wyatt’s article “September 11 and Postmodern Memory,” published in the Arizona Quarterly in 2009, in which he refers to the “terrible unity of that day” (144). And it was not only a unity through mediation, although millions watched the attacks live on their television sets, it was also, sadly, a unity in losses, since, so the Tribute Center states, citizens from eighty-two countries died. The pictures below show a part of the gallery that collects global responses, in this case memorials built in various countries. As mentioned earlier, the center’s main emphasis is not on grieving and the losses, but on the signs of solidarity, acts of bravery and a spirit of community that prevailed after 9/11.


The description of these “International Tributes” reads: “. . . several memorials have been built not only to pay tribute to the victims, but also to the men and women who came forward to help. Today, international visitors continue to remember those who were killed by leaving symbolic objects here at the Tribute Center, and by writing messages of hope for a more peaceful world.” The following pictures are examples of these messages.

The cards encourage visitors to share their “September 11th story” and how they have been changed “by the events of September 11th” or by relating what can be done “in the spirit of Tribute to help or educate another.” As the flyer describes it, these cards represent “voices of promise” by recording “how people around the world have turned grief into hope and renewal” and are thus creating “an international dialogue.” The room in which these cards and the photographs of international memorials are displayed is in the basement of the Tribute Center. It is reserved for changing exhibitions and at the time of our visit the theme of the exhibition was “September 11th: Personal Stories of Transformation – An exhibition exploring why teach 9/11? What 9/11 teaches.” The following picture presents quotes from two children who tell what they learned about or through 9/11:

The most interesting aspect of these quotes was, at least for us, that they come from teenagers who were children at the time when 9/11 happened, about 7 and 9 years old; old enough to remember the event, but too young to understand the change. As the second quote expresses, 9/11 seems to have engendered more prejudice and it is also one of the Tribute Center’s goals to overcome that.

In its changing exhibition room, the Tribute Center also provides an overview of the development of the WTC site and the memorial and museum. As mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted on one of the posters, the “National September 11 Memorial & Museum will reflect the tragedy of 9/11, honor the memory of those lost on that day, and give shape to the resilience of our nation – and the faith we place in our freedoms and our future.” In a way, this sums up the Tribute Center, at least partly. Yet the Tribute Center will not become superfluous once the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum is built, since it is not just a temporary center to bridge the time until the completion of the “real” memorial – and because is more than a memorial.

As I have mentioned before, the Tribute Center takes a very personal approach to 9/11, the recovery and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. One reason for that is, as visitor guide Kimberly Grieger explained to us in an interview, that the Tribute Center evolved out of the September 11th Families’ Association, of which Mr. Lee Ielpi is president. His story is told in the Tribute Center, too and will be depicted briefly because it offers insight into the mission of the Tribute Center.


The September 11th Families’ Association and the Tribute Center

One feature of the changing exhibitions room of the Tribute Center is the “Person to Person History” wall that has several telephone receivers through which visitors can listen to the stories of people who were personally affected by the events. One of the stories is that of Mr. Lee Ielpi who is described as “a retired firefighter [who] created a visitor’s learning center and advocates for education about the events of September 11th.” He tells his story of how his son, Jonathan, a firefighter, called him on 9/11 – a day that “was like any other day” and told him about the attack. Lee Ielpi, being a former firefighter, knew that his son had to go to the World Trade Center and he told his son to be careful. This was the last time he spoke to him. He went out to look for him when he did not come back and encountered other people looking for their families and they began to meet regularly. On December 11, 2001 Jonathan’s body was finally found. It has to be kept in mind that many families were not able to recover any remains of their loved ones since the remains of 1,100 people who died in the attacks were never found. For the families this meant that the very site was, in a way, the cemetery for their loved ones. As Mr. Ielpi states on the recording: “We, family members, in the beginning we felt confident that everybody’s gonna do the right thing here . . . this is hallowed ground, this is where we found 20,000 body parts.  . . . the only thing we wanted, the world wanted, the country wanted, was a fitting memorial.”

One can say that the Tribute Center provides this. It looks both ways, into the future, with a positive message of peace and community, and in the past, commemorating the ones that lost their lives in the attacks and the recovery. It is a project of the September 11th Families’ Association, which explains its mission for the Tribute Center as follows: “The September 11th Families’ Association supports victims of terrorism through education and peer support. The Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a program of the Association, connects and educates visitors to the World Trade Center site with the experiences of people directly affected by the events of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.” I have already described the basement level, which is the part of the Tribute Center dedicated to education and intercultural dialogue and understanding, therefore I will give a brief overview of the ground level’s structure.


The design of the center’s ground level

If the basement is the part that provides an outlook into the future, the ground level is dedicated to the past. Visitors start walking through a gallery that shows the WTC as a business place, a working environment, with a collection of quotes by people who worked in or around the towers, describing what working in the World Trade Center meant to them. The architecture of the gallery is open, enabling the visitors to see the adjoining rooms and get a peek of what is to come, which in the flyer is called “passage through time.” It is described as an “interactive timeline,” in the forms of poster columns and picture walls that “shares personal experiences of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001 including events that took place at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.” Audio recordings, video footage and artifacts recovered from the rubble of the site complement the visual timeline. One wall is painted in light blue, representing the color of the sky on 9/11, but it is gradually covered by a “grey cloud of ‘missing posters’” (Tribute Center Flyer). The last room on the ground level commemorates those who died in a “collage of photographs and symbolic objects” which are brought there by family members, and by a “perpetual scrolling of names” (Tribute Center Flyer). This room creates a very emotional atmosphere because it visualizes the scope of the attacks, the scope of human tragedy and loss, for the visitors. This, again, brings to mind David Wyatt’s essay (“September 11 & Postmodern Memory”) in which he describes the “loss of loss” of 9/11:

“What was lost on September 11 was awful enough, enough to knock a country flat. Just as bad, perhaps, was our losing our loss. It got taken away. The dignity and the fellow-feeling and the sheer sense of it all counting for something was somehow superseded. Not by a second, even more deadly, attack. Our loss got lost in the nature and quality of our nation’s response” (144).

If one agrees with this notion, then the Tribute Center’s main contribution to those affected by 9/11 might be the return of loss. It does not rip open the scarred wound of the attack and it does not lament and blame, but it shows the human tragedy, not only of those killed immediately, but also the sacrifice of those who came to help. A very special way to pay tribute to the many volunteer workers, the construction workers, the firefighters and anyone who contributed to the recovery, are the Walking Tours the Tribute Center offers. These tours are conducted by people “whose lives have been profoundly changed by September 11th”, as the flyer states. Each tour is different, due to the personal history and approach of the tour guides, so the following description of a tour is just an example.


An Example of the Walking Tours

As mentioned above, the tour guides are connected to 9/11 in a way as “survivors, family members who lost loved ones, rescue workers, civilian volunteers, police, firefighters and Lower Manhattan residents and workers” (Tribute Center Flyer). They take the visitors to a walking tour around the WTC site and “share their personal experience of loss, healing and survival with a factual description of the events, providing the visitor with an unparalleled opportunity to connect with history firsthand,” as the Tribute Center’s flyer describes it. Again, what is emphasized here are a personal approach and the aspect of healing. The Tribute Center and the Walking Tour do not aim at opening the scar, but rather to make it heal, while at the same time not forgetting it. In addition, the Walking Tour stresses the aspect of community, since it offers a chance to meet people from around the world and to open a dialog within the group and with the tour guides. Our guides, Denise and Paul, worked as a team and split the tour. Paul is a retired firefighter and thus connected to 9/11. The couple’s personal experience of 9/11 was mainly marked by what seemed to be a never-ending series of funerals, as Denise told us, since they almost went to a funeral a day for a year. As Denise phrased it: “It’s been nine years, but here it’s still going on.” This sums up what the Tribute Center and the Walking Tour are about: both are attempts to come to terms with a shocking event, to start a process of healing, while not forgetting those who lost their lives in the attacks, the many big and small acts of bravery, the “terrible unity” mentioned by Wyatt, but also the feeling of community that came out of the attacks.

It would lead too far to recount all the facts mentioned during the tour and to elaborate on all details, but I would like to mention some aspect to describe the general atmosphere and intention of the tour. The starting point was the FDNY Wall, which was still full of flowers and other personal items family members had brought there three days earlier, at the ninth anniversary of the attacks. From there we went around the site, which showed us how big the 16 acres of the site actually are – as Paul said, all of Liberty Island would fit into the site. Our next stop was at a pedestrian bridge from where we could see right into the site, where construction was in full operation. While we watched the construction workers, Paul recounted the history of the World Trade Center and stressed its important as a meeting point of international businesses, but also its importance as a New York landmark. He also mentioned several aspects that would not come to one’s mind right away when thinking of 9/11, such as the consequences for the businesses located in and around the World Trade Center. For them, it meant the loss of all their records and their office space – a total of ten million square feet – and for some even the end of operation, since they went out of business. However, some businesses have returned, for example to Building 7, which was built outside the so-called “bathtub” (the fundament that was surrounded by walls to keep the water of the Hudson River out) and has been rebuilt and re-occupied for the last three years.

However, he also told us about the other side of the World Trade Center site, which should not be forgotten. While the operations to build the One World Trade Center are in full progress, over 1,100 bodies have never been found, probably because they were vaporized during the impact of the planes. This means that the site is not only a place where something new is built and the terror is overcome, it is as well a cemetery of sorts. This is why a Family House was built there, which was the only place families could go to (before the Tribute Center existed) to grieve and leave personal items such as photos and poems. This calls to mind that the site is, for many, hallowed ground, which is reflected in the design of the new site. The two “footprints”, as they are called, of the towers will not be filled in, but made into pools of water to honor and remember those who lost their lives there. In this way, New York looks forward without forgetting what lies behind, as the Walking Tour’s structure illustrated as well. As already mentioned, Paul also informed us about the history of the World Trade Center, which made us aware again that it was more than the site of a terrorist attack, but also a working space, an architectural landmark and a New York icon. It is interesting that this aspect was stressed, too, since not every visitor had a chance to see the WTC and those who were toddlers when the attacks happened are coming of age and might want to know more about this building than just the fact that it is gone. And how can one appreciate and understand the new building without knowing about the original building’s past?


A Tribute to the Past and an Outlook into the Future

In conclusion it can be said that the Tribute Center manages to find the balance between commemorating the devastating scope of the attacks and looking into the future with optimism. It is impossible to sum up the impact the Visitor Center had on us and it is difficult to express the emotions and the atmosphere in words, but we can at least say that the Center treats the attacks and the bereaved with respect and empathy, while still remaining educational and keeping the necessary emotional distance. The Visitor Center encourages dialog, which is probably the most important step in making the scar heal and at the same time not forgetting its origin.

Last updated: January 23, 2011.


Wyatt, David. “September 11 and Postmodern Memory.” Arizona Quarterly 65 (2009): 139-161. Print.

Flyer of the Tribute WTC Visitor Center:

Last updated: January 29, 2011