What Working In NYC’s First 9/11 Memorial Museum Was Really Like
In the Spring of 2004, while searching for jobs online, I stumbled upon an ad seeking employees for a brand new interactive museum and event space. I responded with a cover letter and resume, and was asked to come in for an interview that same week. As I walked through the Wall Street area to find the interview address, I was led to the second floor of the old Standard Oil Building. I walked inside and headed up the stairs where I was greeted by the HR manager, Eric. Behind him was a blindingly white, practically empty vast space that still smelled like wet paint. At that point the museum had some incomplete art installations and unpacked boxes laying around, but nothing else. Eric was friendly and charming, and bragged for awhile about how he was a website designer for some C list Broadway stars. I pretended to be impressed.
As we turned the corner, I noticed a huge wallpapered area of the white room was covered in a ten foot tall image of The World Trade Center buildings. Eric proceeded to explain that this was going to be the NYC’s first and only 9/11 memorial museum. The pay rate for the position was $10 an hour and there were no benefits. I was twenty years old at the time and thought that was great. Eric continued to tell me that the owner of the museum, Michael, had become rich from being one of the first pioneers of HDTV. The museum he was opening would be based around one main attraction: two 80 seat HD theaters that showcased a fifteen minute film recreating the 9/11 attacks, complete with chairs that vibrated and moved when the planes hit. The interactive film experience was going to be called “Rockin’ 9/11!” If hired as a host, I would be introducing the film every half hour, as well as controlling the lights and managing guest’s possible vomiting from motion sickness. The rest of the museum would be filled with statues, and other 9/11 artifacts all leading to a gift shop upon exit.
Since the museum was just a short walk away from the still rubble filled WTC site, they hoped it would draw in enough people to become the next big NYC tourist attraction. At that point no one had made any kind of tribute space or museum for 9/11, and this was long before the official one was created. Eric told me that they were scheduled to have a soft opening all Summer, and have the Grand Opening on the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sept. 11, 2004. The museum was going to be called “9/11 LIVE.”
I was told the first requirement of getting hired for this gig was making sure I could handle watching the film. I had no idea what I was getting into, but agreed to watch it before leaving. Eric ushered me into the very creepy empty theatre all by myself. Michael, the owner was in the projection booth and started the film himself. It was extremely intense-especially with the seats moving and vibrating which actually made you actually “feel” the planes hitting. The film ended with a super cheesy song that had been recorded especially for it called “Moving On”, which featured a montage of NYC before the attacks. The lights came up, I exited the theatre to find a man waiting outside who looked exactly like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. It was Michael.
Michael excitedly asked what I thought of his film. “It was great, and certainly life like!” I replied. I had actually been slightly traumatized by how heavy and realistic it was, but left that part out. I wanted to get hired after all. Before I left, Eric took some notes about my schedule and told me he looked forward to seeing me at training. In my opinion the whole idea of the museum was tacky, but I needed a job so I moved forward, hoping it would actually become a steady source of income.
About a month later, I was working 20 hours a week in the almost empty museum space, that was not having an easy time getting customers in. Eric decided that since it was so slow, he was going to send us out to hit the streets and hand out flyers. A few other employees and myself were not thrilled about this new task. Being one of those annoying flyer people on the streets was not what we had signed up for. We were each given piles of hundreds of flyers, split into teams of two and told to walk around the Battery Park City and Ground Zero to hand them out. “Come visit “9/11 LIVE! the cities first 9/11 museum”, we would say, as we tried to hand flyers to tourists who all ignored us. Occasionally a local would tell us to go fuck ourselves. After awhile, we got fed up and started dumping the flyers in garbage cans and filling time at Starbucks.
Despite the slow start, press write-ups began to bring in a slow but steady stream of customers. Soon, I was able to start introducing the “Rockin 9/11!” film regularly. I quickly found out that Michael, the owner, would run upstairs at the start of every film because he had rigged hidden cameras into the theatre to watch the audience’s reactions. Many visitors would leave the film early because they couldn’t handle it. Many left because of motion sickeness. As staff we were required to wear walkie talkies while working, and soon discovered that Michael could and would often listen in on them. He also had placed hidden camera’s throughout the workspace, and in the break room. We were being surveiled at all times while at work.
As the Summer continued, it seemed like the museum space grew and morphed every time I clocked in for a shift. Life-sized images of WTC rubble appeared on the towering white walls, and new merchandise like hardcover photo books with 9/11 images arrived daily. One day while bored and working at the merchandise counter, I sifted through one of the new photo books. After flipping a few pages, I found a vivid photo of a 9/11 victim’s severed foot with the high heel still attached staring me in the face. Horrified, I slammed the book shut and never opened it again. I could not get the image out of my head for months. These were things that the news never showed you.
With the new stream of business came more morbid additions and artifacts, and museum began to take on a creepy life of it’s own. I hated having to give the tourists who visited directions, so that they could go and gawk at the graveyard that was Ground Zero. Since business was slow, I was often alone in the quiet and empty space, which glorified a horrific tragedy. It was eery and creepy. Wherever I looked, I could not escape the horror that happened just blocks away. When my shift ended, I would exit the 9/11 sensory overload, only to have to walk right past the Ground Zero site to get to my train home.
After a few months working here, I began to have repetitive 9/11 nightmares that I still have nearly fourteen year later. In my dreams I was either running from the falling buildings, inside a plane that was about to crash into them, or stuck in an elevator inside a tower. Back then, I would wake up from these vivid nightmares, only to head back to work and be surrounded by imagery and video of that horrible day all over again.
With the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks swiftly approaching in 2004, many staff members had started to quit. I had begun to look for other jobs, and was declining shifts as much as possible. Those of us who remained started fighting over who would have to do final walk throughs at night, because we were all so creeped out by the place.
On Sept 10th, Eric held a brief staff meeting to tell us how important the next day would be to bring in business. It was our make or break day. Because of this, he wanted us ALL out pounding the pavement with flyers and coupons around the ground zero site. We all looked at each other with wide eyes, knowing this was a really bad idea. Not only were the family members of victims paying respects at ground zero that day, the place was also swarming with media. None of us really wanted to be seen on CNN advertising a “Rockin 9/11” movie. To help motivate us, Eric said we would each get an extra $5 for every ticket sold from flyers we handed out. So with our hands full of flyers and coupons, wearing “9/11 Live!” emblazoned t-shirts, we headed toward ground zero, as a united front of starving actors willing to do anything to make a buck. I had no real intention of giving anyone a flyer that day, but went along for the ride.
I sheepishly stood around the sidelines of ground zero, observing the crazy combination of media, tourists taking selfies, and t-shirt vendors. It didn’t take long before we saw one of the victim’s family members scream at a guy selling 9/11 postcards and t-shirts. “My brother was murdered here, how dare you make money off of his death?!”
The emotions of those gathered were raw and powerful. One of my co workers who was a go-getter, was the first to try and get some flyers out. The next thing we knew a huge Italian guy had him right by his 9/11 Live! T-shirt, and was telling him to get the fuck out. The rest of us, who were already not on board with this idea took off back to the museum. When we got back, not more than twenty-five minutes after leaving, Eric was not happy to see us. We explained that we were for sure going to get our asses kicked if we kept trying to hand out flyers at ground zero. Eric begrudgingly sent us down to Battery Park to hand out flyers instead.
For our 9/11 grand opening, only five people showed up the entire day. We were blamed for the lack of business, for not doing a good enough job flyering. The museum quickly dwindled, but still brought in enough income as an event place to sustain being open a bit longer. I eventually read about the space being closed in 2005. I guess nobody wanted to have a “Rockin 9/11” after all.