Much of the humanity that the 9/11 museum hopes to show to the world when it opens next spring remains unfinished, but stark steel beams and other remnants of the Twin Towers were on display Friday as museum officials conducted a press tour of the unfinished underground site.
The splashy electronics, touch displays, videos, pictures and oral histories that visitors will see are still hidden behind construction barriers or are in the works at the museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
All of its large artifacts have been installed, museum officials said. Just across what will be the entrance, on its ground floor, stands two steel columns from the base of the north tower. Walking past, a visitor can see the almost completed building known as the Freedom Tower in the background.
Outside, hundreds of visitors walked around the memorial, which opened last year and is marked by water cascading down the sides of two pools into the footprint of the two towers that were hit by airliners hijacked by terrorists 12 years ago.
Heading underground to the museum's interior, director Alice Greenwald stopped near the bottom of a long, wide staircase and pointed at a narrow parallel staircase that is among the last parts of the Trade Center left standing.
"On 9/11, hundreds of people escaped to safety down those stairs, fleeing the collapse," she said. "Because it was the last standing remnant of the Trade Center, the stairs began to take on meaning, symbolic meaning, particularly for the tens of thousands of people who evacuated and escaped safely, the survivors. It became known as the survivors' stairs," she said.
Joe Daniels, museum president, pointed out the "last column," the final segment of steel removed from the World Trade Center site. "It is adorned with all this graffiti of remembrance, messages from first-responder agencies to their fallen brothers, construction workers, civilians. [It's] covered in that," Daniels said.
Other exhibits included lengths of steel that were bent when the planes hit, and a beam that looked like a cross and became the site for prayers and services in the early months of the recovery. Next to the cross is the jaws of a construction grappler, clutching a mass of bent steel rebar -- the rigid steel bars used to reinforce poured concrete.
One of the most important parts of the museum, both officials said, will be the area with photographs of each of the 2,983 victims and, in an inner room, rotating photos of the victims with images of them through the years, an oral history and remembrances from family members. "It is an amazingly important exhibit because it shows the individuality of those who died but it's contrasted against the scale of loss," Daniels said.
At another spot, the outlines can be seen of what will be a quotation from Virgil spelled out in letters fashioned from Trade Center steel: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."
That message, Daniels said, reflects the spirit of the museum and memorial. "One of the reasons we think 9/11 continues to resonate with so many is that all those people did that day was what we do every single day. They simply got up in the morning and went to work. And this idea that they were who we are really speaks to all our visitors," Daniels said.