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Silent rooms, tissues, counsellors help ease the emotional pain for visitors to 9-11 museum

FILE- In this May 14, 2014 file photo, a sign tracking the time Osama Bin Laden was at large is displayed at the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum in New York. The museum is the latest in a series of memorials-as-museums that seek to honor the dead while presenting a full, fair history of the event that killed them. And the Sept. 11 museum strives to do that at ground zero while the attacks are still raw memories for many. (AP Photo)

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FILE- In this May 14, 2014 file photo, a sign tracking the time Osama Bin Laden was at large is displayed at the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum in New York. The museum is the latest in a series of memorials-as-museums that seek to honor the dead while presenting a full, fair history of the event that killed them. And the Sept. 11 museum strives to do that at ground zero while the attacks are still raw memories for many. (AP Photo)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - There are prominent videos of the twin towers collapsing and photos of people falling from them. Portraits of nearly 3,000 victims and voice mail messages from people in hijacked planes.

But behind the wrenching sights and sounds of the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum lies a quiet effort to help visitors handle its potentially traumatic impact, from silent spaces and built-in tissue boxes to a layout designed to let people bypass the most intense exhibits.

Discreet oak-leaf symbols denote items connected to the dead, and the images of falling victims are in an alcove marked with a warning sign. Designers made sure rooms have ample exits, lest people feel claustrophobic in the underground space. And American Red Cross counselling volunteers were standing by as the museum opened to the public Wednesday.

"There's a lot of thought given to the psychological safety of visitors," said Jake Barton, who helped create the exhibits.

During the opening ceremony, the enormous national 9-11 flag was unfurled, refolded and marched into the museum by firefighters. The flag was flying from a building near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and was later found shredded in the debris of ground zero.

People touched by other disasters and tragedies helped piece the flag back together. Organizers say it now includes a piece of the flag Abraham Lincoln was placed on after he was assassinated.

"It's something that we'll never forget," said Jim Guillard of Fort Myers, Florida, as he headed into the museum with his 17-year-old daughter, Tori.

More than 42,000 9-11 survivors, victims' relatives, first responders and recovery workers had visited during the past six days, when it was open only to them, according to Executive Director Joe Daniels.

It's the latest in a series of memorials-as-museums that seek to honour the dead while presenting a full, fair history of the event that killed them. And the Sept. 11 museum strives to do that at ground zero while the attacks are still raw memories for many.

Patricia Smith, 14, found herself looking at her late mother's police shield while touring the museum last week. She found it inspiring, but also "really upsetting, at points."

Museum planners realized early on the challenge of trying not to shatter people "while at the same time being true to the authenticity of the event," said Tom Hennes, founder of exhibit designer Thinc Design.

Trauma specialists told museum leaders that sounds of voices and images of hands and faces could be particularly distressing and that visitors should get to choose what to see.

The goal: "to keep it feeling alive and present without making it so alive and present that it's unbearable," says psychologist Billie Pivnick, who worked with Thinc.

To allow visitors an emotional breather, silent spaces with few artifacts surround the densely packed historical exhibit that follows the timeline of 9-11, set off by a revolving door. Elsewhere, a room where visitors can call up recorded recollections about individual victims was designed as a quiet sanctum for feelings, with tissue dispensers embedded in the benches and acoustically padded walls, Hennes said.

The historical exhibit, crafted by another firm, Layman Design, envelops visitors in images, information, objects and sounds, but designers sought to avoid emotional overload.

Ambient sounds of emergency radio transmissions and victims calling home are interspersed with the calmer tones of survivors recounting the day. The hijackers are included, but carefully, in grainy airport-security video and unobtrusive individual photos.

Still, the display doesn't shy from large projections of the towers crumbling. "It's a dramatic presentation, but I think it's a dramatic moment," explained Barton, whose firm, Local Projects, handled the multimedia components.

Other museums have faced difficult choices presenting the horrors of history.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for example, decided to display photos of hair shorn from people in death camps, but not the hair itself, and ensconced some graphic film footage in walls too tall for children to see over.

Beyond content choices, the Sept. 11 museum hopes a human touch can help visitors grapple with their reactions.

Retired social worker Georgine Gorra helped people find their way around the museum after Thursday's dedication ceremony. They didn't seem traumatized, she said, just tearful.

"We all were, frankly."

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.

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If You Go...

NATIONAL SEPT. 11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM: Liberty Street and Greenwich Street, New York, 212-266-5211 http://www.911memorial.org. Open daily, 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. Adults: $24; U.S. veterans, college students and seniors, $18; children 7-17, $15; children under 6, free. Free for all visitors from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays. Security screening required.

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