On Sept. 11, 2001, Robert Zachary Vinci was on a conference call from his office in the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
talking about an upcoming exhibit on the history of baseball. The conversation ended quickly. From his office window, Vinci could see clouds of smoke and dozens of fire trucks headed downtown.
Nine years later, Vinci, who graduated from NC State in 1990, found himself in the middle of one of the most important and challenging museum projects in the world. As exhibition project manager for the National September 11 Memorial Museum for two years, Vinci was in charge of coordinating construction schedules, budgets and exhibition designs.
The museum opens to the public Wednesday.
The decade of planning and construction has been a difficult journey, with nearly every decision prompting a public discussion. Families of victims were concerned about how artifacts would be displayed. A video on the rise of Al Quaida created controversy. At one point, some family members raised questions about whether to show the faces of the 12 terrorists who hijacked four planes that day.
For Vinci, who had worked in museum planning since 1998, it was an emotional journey as well. “There were days when it was managing budgets and schedules and exhibition space, how much glass we would need,” he says. “And there were days when we in meetings to review exhibits as they were being created and designed. You’re hearing phone calls from Flight 93 passengers to their families or radio transmissions from first responders as they were trying to fight the fires and rescue people. Those were the days that were more difficult.”
Much of Vinci’s job involved figuring out where and how to display some of the huge artifacts that resulted from the attack. Two huge steel tridents that formed the distinctive façade of the Twin Towers are the first thing visitors see before descending to the museum, which is mostly 70 feet below ground.
There are other massive pieces: A 36-foot steel beam that became known as the Last Column, which was tagged with photos and handwritten messages during the recovery operation. An elevator engine salvaged from one of the towers and a Ladder Co. 3 fire truck, its front end deformed into shards of curled metal.
“Some of these things were several stories tall,” Vinci says, and it was a challenge to figure out where to display them.
For smaller artifacts, the museum designed cases that allowed the exhibits to change, both for preservation purposes and to allow more of the museum’s vast holdings to be displayed. On display now are such things as a pair of lens-less eyeglasses, a burned wallet accompanied by credit cards and a Brooklyn library card, as well as scores of the “missing” posters that papered the city after the attacks.
Vinci says allowing for the changing of displays is important. “We’re still collecting history,” he says. “This is just over a decade old.”
The museum has an area where visitors can contribute to that collection of history — in a recording booth, they can respond to questions and talk about where they were, and why it’s important to remember.
Another of the larger artifacts is the so-called Survivors’ Stairs, a remnant of the remains of the Vesey Street staircase that was used by survivors to escape.
Vinci and the museum designers placed it in the center of the museum alongside the last leg of the descent from the pavilion. “It’s the best place to see it. You walk down the staircase, and you are beside the stairs. You can study the tread and the construction,” Vinci says. And it’s an important part of the story the museum tells. “It’s the way some people survived,” he says.
One the artifacts that resonated most with Vinci was a large piece of the grillage — I-beams set in concrete that were used to create the foundation of the towers. Two pieces survived. “I spent a couple of days down there with a guy with a jackhammer, working to expose the ends of the beams. You could see how the thing was constructed,” Vinci says.
“It was an element that survived that day, it was there before the construction of the building, and that jackhammer was a lesson to show just how strong it was….We chipped away so you could see the ends of the beams going one way. Here was this amazing architectural element I never knew about, and it was strong enough to survive that day.”
Vinci didn’t plan a career in museums. At NC State, he majored in zoology and genetics, but always had a love of history. In New York, he started doing environmental education for the New York City Parks Department and then later got a job at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was an exhibition developer. He later was director of exhibitions at the Museum of American Finance, which opened in 2008 in the old Bank of New York building on Wall Street. After leaving the 9/11 museum staff in 2012, he was worked as a consultant and event planner.
At the natural history museum, the baseball exhibit that Vinci was discussing on the morning of the attacks eventually came together. And among the items displayed was a player’s cap from the 2001 World Series (the Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks), which took place six weeks after the attacks. During the series, the Yankees wore caps bearing the emblems of New York City’s emergency services.
“So it came full circle,” Vinci says.
—Sylvia Adcock ’81