NEW YORK — The National September 11 Museum, which President Obama praised at its dedication Thursday as "a sacred place of healing," has in its development years repeatedly aroused bitter divisions over how to tell the story of the terror attacks.
The museum, which opens to the public Wednesday, has faced what urban anthropologist Elizabeth Greenspan calls "controversy after controversy.'' Disputes have ranged from the disposition of human remains to the $24 general admission price.
Greenspan, author of The Battle for Ground Zero, says much of the contention has stemmed from the institution's dual, and often conflicted, mission: to commemorate those who died in the 2001 attacks, and to explain the attacks themselves.
Jeffrey Melnick, a University of Massachusetts Boston cultural historian who has studied 9/11, says the museum's problem is the one that bedeviled redevelopment of the entire 16-acre World Trade Center site: "Too many different stakeholders trying to do too many different things in one place.''
And possibly trying to do it too soon. Greenspan says the history that the museum seeks to convey to visitors "is still delicate.''
Among the controversies in which the museum has been embroiled over the past eight years:
• Whether unidentified human remains recovered from Ground Zero should be kept in a private medical examiner's office site in the subterranean museum. When a solemn procession took remains to the museum Saturday, some relatives showed their opposition by standing with black tape over their mouths.
• Whether the exhibit, by displaying the hijackers' photographs and names, glorifies them and insults their victims' memories. The museum compromised by using small head shots marked as FBI evidence.
• Whether a brief explanatory film narrated by NBC's Brian Williams about the 9/11 conspiracy unfairly links al-Qaeda terrorism with Islam. An imam who sat on an interfaith clergy museum advisory committee resigned in protest, but the museum stuck by the film.
• Whether the presence in the museum of the "Ground Zero Cross,'' a cross section of steel I-beams found in the rubble that inspired many recovery workers, constitutes an endorsement of Christianity by a public institution. An atheist group has appealed a lower court ruling that there was no church-state problem.
Because of these and other issues, some family members have said they'll boycott the museum.
But on Thursday at least one 9/11 survivor said he found the experience powerful.
Tim Brown, a 51-year-old retired firefighter, said he lost 93 friends in the department on 9/11. He said he was moved to tears when he visited the museum's memorial section and saw the wall of photos of those who died that day.
"There were so many (firefighters) who died that sometimes you forget who lived and who died,'' he said. "So you see someone's photo here, and say, 'I forgot he died.' It's hard for us.''
Now that the museum is opening, will divisions begin to heal? Don't bet on it, said Greenspan: "I think there'll be even more debate. We have to go through that to get to a more consensual place.''
She was echoed by Jefferson Crowther, whose son Welles died a hero helping other workers flee the South Tower. "This is America,'' he said. "Everyone's got a bone to pick.''
The museum opens to the general public on May 21.
Obama, who traveled to New York on Wednesday to deliver an infrastructure speech and headline two Democratic fundraisers, returns to the White House early Thursday afternoon.
USA TODAY looks at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. (From May 15th) Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
More than a decade after the twin tower attacks in New York City, the National September 11 Memorial Museum will open its doors with a dedication from President Obama on Thursday, and an official opening for the public on May 21. Duration: 00:52