My first day alone as a visiting services volunteer in the 911 Memorial and Museum and I was pretty nervous since we don’t know where our respective stations will be until the few minutes right before reporting to our shift positions. I was really apprehensive because the Museum is so vast – although you’d never know it from looking at the façade of the building, and I thought I would get lost/not know enough about the exhibits I was near/not sure of how to get to the exits/ not know how to deal with “difficult” visitors/ or, of course, say something stupid.
My assigned station was to the line awaiting seating for the 11-minute film “Rebirth at Ground Zero”. Six months after 9/11, Project Rebirth, a nonprofit organization founded by filmmaker Jim Whitaker, placed time-lapse cameras in strategic locations at and around Ground Zero. While cameras followed the physical transformation at the site, the project also charted through interviews the emotional journeys of individuals who were profoundly affected by 9/11.
Rebirth at Ground Zero” according to the 911 Memorial website is described as a “multi-screen film experience using time lapse footage and recorded interviews to present an inspiring first-hand perspective of the transformation and renewal of the World Trade Center site and the uplifting personal journeys of some of those most directed affected by the attack. It is a 270-degree panoramic media installation created exclusively for the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
The film, as I stated above, is 11 minutes long (actually, 10 min 52 seconds) and is shown every twenty minutes with a capacity of 50-55 people. Since the seating is comprised of benches, the number of individuals we can fit in varies, for obvious reasons. The more small children, the more capacity we’ll have. My job was to maintain count of the number of people on line and to close off the particular showing after a count of about 45. In the meantime, I have to be aware of visitors that look like they may be curious about what’s going on and approach them with a few sentences about the film. I also had to be vigilant for visitors sitting on the floor, taking flash photography (neither is permitted) listening to the audio guide without earphones and other sorts of transgressions.
I was assigned with another volunteer and put at the head of the line, while she roped off the line after her count. There were staff to guide the visitors into the small auditorium where the film is shown. My “staff” counterpart was a very gregarious man, I’d say in his late 60s, who every 15 minutes or so, would announce the showing with a brief description in a clear, booming voice. I discovered later that he is a former actor, having [played a key role in The Jeffersons on TV, and other roles on Broadway. Of course, he doesn’t mention this – the other volunteer assigned with me told me the gentleman’s history.
Over the course of my shift, I had the opportunity to interact with so many visitors. Although they were mostly from the US, I spoke with people from New Zealand, Korea and other foreign countries, but the most memorable were the couple from Munich, Germany, about in their 60s, who had just tied the knot the previous day in Central Park. They had known each other for over 25 years, but never had time to get married, as their different careers and travel left them “no time” to get married. They eagerly showed me the photos of their wedding and their carriage ride around Central Park, he – very dashing in a traditional; she – just radiant and very beautiful in her traditional wedding gown. They just looked so happy and, received congratulations from all within earshot, including the aforementioned staff member, who, again with his booming voice, announced the coupling to the other visitors in line.
Then there was the gay couple from NYC, who live in Greenwich Village and recounted their experiences of the September 11 attack with great solemnity and respect. The United Airlines worker who traded places with another working at the World Trade Center and is alive now as a result.
Of course, there is always ONE exiting person who decided to tell a very burly man escorting a woman in a wheelchair that the film “wasn’t worth it”. (By the way, there is no extra charge for any of the films or exhibits in the Museum).The burly man looked at the detractor with a very annoyed expression on his face. When he exited the auditorium, he was tearful, gave me a fist bump and indicated that he wished he could find that other man now and give him ”what for”. He had a shirt with FDNY emblem on it……
Although generally, the people in line were very good-natured and smiled on the way out, many were visibly disturbed as they left the auditorium. A number of visitors were disappointed that could not get in, but quietly waited on line for the next showing 20 minutes later.
My shift went by very quickly, and after signing out, I returned to the exhibits to start to really get to know them for future conversations.
I guess the only statement that did not come true when I was in training for this volunteer position was what was said is the most frequently asked question: “Where’s the rest room?” Only two visitors asked me that Friday.
I know I am going to enjoy being a visitor services volunteer – there’s so much to learn about “the day” and so many people to learn about and from. I feel very privileged.
Note: If you don’t have the opportunity to visit the 911 Memorial and Museum, you view the film online.