My recent trip to NYC landed me in a small yet poignant 9/11 Museum that sits in the shadow of the future museum being built at Ground Zero. Yes, tucked away on the 2nd floor of a commercial building is the highly rated 9/11 Museum known as the “Ground Zero Museum Workshop” in NYC’s Meatpacking District – as it watches the sun slowly rise on a superpower called the “9/11 Memorial & Museum” in lower Manhattan at the former World Trade Center site.
At the helm of the Museum Workshop, known worldwide as the “Biggest LITTLE Museum in New York” is Gary Suson, 32, who served as the Official Photographer at Ground Zero for the Uniformed Firefighter’s Association. Appointed by former UFA Manhattan Trustee Rudy Sanfilippo and overseen by former FDNY Chief of Department Daniel Nigro, Suson spent seven months, 19 hours per day documenting every possible scenario that could play out on a daily basis at Ground Zero for no pay and ordered to keep his existence a secret to all media. After falling ill in 2002 with pulmonary injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he was designated as disabled by the US Department of Justice 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund. Suson, fearing a shortened life, took some of his funds and opened the tiny museum. I spoke with him for a few minutes. “I wanted to make sure the stories would be preserved in case anything ever happened to me,“ says Suson. In just a few years the museum has gained a cult-like following after rising to the #1 Most Highest Rated Attraction in NYC in the Summer of 2011 on Trip Advisor. “We never thought we’d make it to #1 and beat out all the behemoths” says Suson. “I simply wanted to share the stories and our experiences at Ground Zero with the masses. The response was incredible. People have a need to know.” In Biblical terms, Gary Suson is David. Enter Goliath.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a billion dollar, 800lb. gorilla with super-sized individual salaries that are larger than the highest grossing year that Ground Zero Museum Workshop has on record. There are many advantages to a large museum while at the same time some cons, the foremost being the lack of “personal attention” that say, the Museum Workshop can offer. Slated to open in the Spring of 2014, the 9/11 Memorial has been in talks to secure Mr. Suson’s image collection, dubbed “Rare Photos” by the New York Times. With the international following that Suson’s notorious images have, it stands to reason that the Memorial Museum would want to gobble up anything and everything standing in it’s path to ultimate success. That includes Gary Suson, an FDNY Honorary Battalion Chief and one of only two photographer’s in the world with unfettered access to Ground Zero in 2001-2. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz also had access to the WTC site but focused his lens on the landscaping changes of Ground Zero. Suson ‘lived’ at the World Trade Center site for half a year, in the process becoming close with the FDNY recovery teams and supervisors, leading to his being granted permission to shoot the most sensitive of moments. When asked about his talks with the Memorial, Suson kept quiet, saying the negotiations were of ”a private nature.”
I am under the impression that the future 9/11 Memorial Museum may lack the personal touch that Suson’s Museum Workshop has: there supposedly will be no audio tours and very few chairs, designed for “speed” in shuffling the millions of guests in and out at light speed. Anything less would probably cause a traffic jam as well as frustrated lines of would-be visitors awaiting a chance to see the “Last Beam” – the “WTC Cross” – and the survivor’s staircase. These big-ticket artifacts will certainly be a draw for gawkers looking to see iconic items of the “Recovery.” Up in the Meatpacking District, Gary Suson’s Museum is held together with scotch tape, a small budget and a lot of heart. Far removed from Ground Zero, it doesn’t have the advantage of “being there” at the WTC site. With a total staff of just 5 very energetic and passionate ladies, daily tours max out at 28 guests with two to three tours per day. According to Suson, who was given a private, underground tour of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, “Our museum is roughly the size of the ladies bathroom at the Memorial.” Ground Zero Museum Workshop does boast the largest piece of World Trade Center window glass in existence, on loan to the Museum from a loyal WTC Recovery worker. Also on display is a small piece of American Airline’s flight 11, also on loan. The other small artifacts on display are ones that actually appear in Suson’s images and were removed with permission of a supervisory officer, FDNY Lt. Brian Bonsignore of the GPS Unit. What will ultimately separate the two museums is the personal touch and intimacy, or lack thereof. In terms of the 9/11 experience, will visitors want a cliché, large, commercial museum space and prefer the extra elbow room and sheer size or will they prefer a tiny museum with an attentive staff and less “wow” factor? Says Suson, “We are prepared for the worst. If there is a demand for our museum to stay open in 2014, then so be it.” So far in fiscal year 2013, Suson is unsalaried at GZMW. What extra money they get each month, they donate to the FDNY Foundation for the Children of Fallen Firefighters and to the Firefighter Ralph Geidel Fund, paying off the dental work of a cancer stricken firefighter who lost most his teeth from chemo. Ground Zero Museum Workshop has the support of numerous 9/11 families. Retired FDNY Lt. Paul Geidel was at GZMW the day I was there, visiting from Las Vegas. Mr. Geidel lost his son, firefighter Gary Geidel of FDNY Rescue-1 on 9/11. Says Geidel about Suson’s museum, “It’s a beautiful and tastefully designed museum that preserves the memory of those lost while educating the public about our Recovery work at Ground Zero. Mr. Suson’s museum has helped my other son Ralph out with his post-cancer medical bills and my family is most appreciative. I see no reason why the two museums can’t co-exist.” Suson authored the Barnes & Noble photography book, “Requiem: Images of Ground Zero” which he uses in part to raise money for charity. The book is currently sold at the 9/11 Memorial and neighboring St. Paul’s Chapel.
With the vast and diverse image collection that Suson possesses, along with his following, it stands to reason the 9/11 Memorial could make a small fortune on merchandising by gobbling him up. The Wall Street-like salaries of those in charge at the 9/11 Memorial has been called into question by the New York media, as well as the fact that all monies brought in will not go to charity but instead towards running the Memorial. In all fairness, the salaries being commanded by the folks at 911MM are the same as other large Museums around the USA. A small controversy has also formed over the $25 suggested admission fees at the 9/11 Memorial, which Suson’s Museum already charges for a two-hour guided tour. Says Suson, “Our museum and their museum are private ventures. Neither is the “Official Museum” in theory. If you don’t charge an admission fee, the Museum cannot sustain itself as a place of education & remembrance and will close. It’s simple. The act of remembering those lost on 9/11 costs money. It’s either that or we close the doors and forget. I always stand in amazement when someone claims that charging $25 per person is making money off of 9/11. No, its not making money off of 9/11 – that is a grade school mentality – but rather it is making sure people don’t forget. Museums are a public service and all businesses, whether for profit or non-profit cost money to operate. If you don’t charge admission, you close. Period.” When asked what he thinks of the Memorial Museum, Suson stated, “From what I have seen it is wonderfully designed, a class act and will be well received. In my estimates, it will be the busiest museum in the world.” Time will tell if GZMW can sustain the opening of a gargantuan museum. In the most humble of ways, David (Gary Suson) is not looking to slay Goliath (9/11 Memorial), but rather simply co-exist in the same Big Apple with him and possibly even collaborate. The two museums joining talents makes sense if the goal is to tell the full and accurate story of Ground Zero. See both Museums at www.911Memorial.org and www.groundzeromuseumworkshop.com