By Jennifer Maloney Wall Street Journal
Museum officials provide a first look at the “We Remember” exhibit.
When the 9/11 Memorial Museum opens next year, its first exhibit will be spare and elegant, enveloping visitors with the personal accounts of people from around the world describing where they were, and what they felt, on September 11, 2001.
Visitors will step through a collage of voices, speaking together in many languages: “I was in Honolulu, Hawaii.” “I was in Cairo, Egypt.” “On the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” “São Paulo, Brazil.” Panels will display maps fashioned from their words. “So angry.” “So alone and lost.” “Impossible, impossible, impossible.”
The collage suggests everyone has a story to tell about that day, even those thousands of miles away from New York. It is the brainchild of Local Projects, a New York design firm that is bringing high-tech, immersive and interactive exhibits to museums and other public spaces across the country.
Local Projects was a collaborator on the algorithm that arranged the names at the 9/11 Memorial, and developed a new interactive exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which uses 3-D sensors and facial detection so visitors can mimic the pose of a statue or summon an artwork by displaying a facial expression.
Now, the firm’s founder, Jake Barton, is working on a range of projects in New York, from multimedia displays for the 9/11 Memorial Museum to kits for the New York Hall of Science that will turn playgrounds into physics labs.
He is developing interactive exhibits for a planned children’s museum in Harlem, the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling, that will allow kids to archive their art and stories as they come back year after year. And he has proposed an idea for a renovated lobby at the New Victory Theater that would allow visitors to record their own stories of the first time they saw a play.
The designers of the 9/11 Memorial Museum grappled with how to make a museum that speaks both to teenagers who were children at the time of the attacks and to people who ran from the burning towers, Mr. Barton said. The answer, he said: “Have the stories of one group talk to the other group.”
Mr. Barton, who is 40 years old, started out wanting to work as a set designer on Broadway. He worked for a set designer on shows in New York and elsewhere, then toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor. But a day job at a museum exhibition design firm made him realize, he said, that “I didn’t need to be a doctor to make the world a better place.” He enrolled in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he earned a master’s degree in computer science and art. He founded Local Projects before he graduated, in 2002. The firm employs 30 people.
Mr. Barton’s knack for using technology in the service of story-telling is what drew the museum to his firm, said Alice Greenwald, the 9/11 museum’s director.
“It is fundamentally, as Jake said, about human beings communicating with other human beings,” she said. “To me, that’s what this museum is about.”
In addition to “We Remember,” the first exhibit visitors will pass through, Local Projects has designed audiovisual displays exploring the experiences of those who were inside the towers when the planes struck; first responders who ran into the towers; and recovery workers who toiled for months on the pile, searching first for survivors and then for human remains.
Museum officials said that for the opening exhibit, they didn’t want to present a single, authoritative voice of a curator or historian but rather acknowledge that events of September 11 were witnessed by millions of people around the globe who watched the repeated broadcasts of the footage on television. “We’re simply saying, ‘We know you know,'” Ms. Greenwald said.
Instead of telling visitors what happened that day, the museum is designed to help visitors explore their own memories and make sense of the events and their global consequences.
Mr. Barton said he hopes the museum will help visitors grapple with difficult questions: “How has the world changed? What have we learned?”
The exhibits will evolve over time, he said. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum continues to gather 9/11 stories through a toll-free number.
One intensely emotional presentation will play a montage of voices of people who were inside the World Trade Center when the planes hit. They describe the smoke, the chaos, their attempts to escape. The voice collage includes recordings of 911 calls and voicemail recordings left for friends and family, used with permission.
For another display, Mr. Barton proposed projecting footage of the recovery effort onto a piece of steel from the facade of the World Trade Center shaped like a trident.
Ms. Greenwald was initially skeptical. But she and other museum officials in 2010 trekked out to a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the steel was housed, to see a mock-up of his idea.
The trident lay flat. Onto it, Mr. Barton’s team projected footage of bucket lines at Ground Zero shot by the U.S. Department of Labor. Layered over the footage was a radio interview with a sculptor explaining that he volunteered because he knew how to use a blow torch. “It was almost as if, for me, that the steel was telling its own story,” Ms. Greenwald said.
A version of this article appeared April 9, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: “9/11 Museum Exhibits Will Really Talk to Visitors”.