A Place of Hope and Memories
A place where 168 people died could easily be rebuilt as one vast cemetery, but those who designed the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum chose a gentler and far more hopeful path.
The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial, spanning the downtown block where the April 19, 1995, terror bombing occurred, has been widely recognized as perhaps the most hopeful and unique memorial site in the United States. From a peaceful field of lighted chairs, across a shallow Reflecting Pool to the sturdy Survivor Tree, the Memorial’s outdoor sections create a sense of calm assurance.
The same theme carries through the Memorial Museum. For every exhibit tallying the terrible human toll of the bombing, there is a balancing message of optimism and hope. Even the artifacts and displays related to the trials of the bombers are tucked partially out of sight, as if this Memorial, inspired by a terrible mass murder, was still determined to focus on the best side of humanity.
“That’s the way it was from the first hours after the bombing, and it is a feeling we wanted the Memorial to include,” said Kari Watkins, Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum executive director, who has been part of the memorial process from its earliest days.
“This Memorial and Museum are products of literally thousands of people, from families of those who died on April 19 to survivors, rescuers and volunteers,” Watkins said.
The outdoor portion of the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated on April 19, 2000, the fifth anniversary of the bombing. The Memorial Museum was finished in February of 2001. A third component, the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, is a separately-managed think tank working closely with federal, state and local agencies nationwide to improve responses to terrorism.
But it is the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial itself that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Like the battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor, or Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it is a place that forever defines a moment Americans will always recall.
“They know where they were on that Wednesday morning in April, 1995,” Watkins said, “and it was important that the Memorial convey that sense of history, as well as the message that we as a city and a nation overcame and endured.”
For the first five years after the bombing, a simple chain link fence surrounded the Murrah Building site, and from the earliest hours of the rescue and recovery operations, visitors posted messages and personal items on the fence. It became such a tradition to “visit the fence” in Oklahoma City that sections of the original fence were incorporated in the permanent Memorial, and guests still leave their convention nametags or hastily scrawled notes of hope there.
“Visitors feel they are a part of this Memorial as they come through the gate and see that fence,” Watkins said. “We have worked to make it a most personal experience at every level.”
The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial spans both sides of the urban block where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building stood. The 168 chairs, each representing one who died, are aligned in rows to represent the nine floors of the original building. Nineteen of the chairs are smaller; they recognize the children who were lost that day.
At the east end of the Field of Empty Chairs is the only remaining wall from the demolished Murrah Building. Inscribed there are the names of more than 800 survivors from the surrounding area, some of whom were seriously injured in the bombing.
The grassy Field of Chairs overlooks a block-long Reflecting Pool, which is in turn flanked on the east and west by soaring bronze gates, which symbolically frame the moment of the explosion at 9:02 a.m.. One, marked 9:01, represents the peace that prevailed seconds before the bomb exploded. The second, marked 9:03, symbolizes the bomb’s aftermath, when, as the Memorial mission statement notes, those affected by the bomb were “changed forever.”
Most of the buildings surrounding the Murrah site were so badly damaged by the explosion that they had to be demolished, but the eighty-year-old Journal-Record Building, across the street to the north, survived. It overlooks the famed Survivor Tree, an aging American elm that came through the bombing to re-bud. The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum deemed it A Place of Hope and Memories following spring. The tree has become a symbol of hope and has been adopted as the Memorial’s official logo.
The Survivor Tree is surrounded by a promontory wall which affords a view of the entire Memorial, and newly planted rows of fruit trees symbolize the brigades of rescuers who responded to the bombing.
“We also wanted an outdoor place for children, and it seemed natural to start with the messages they sent us in 1995. Here, children can see that the world holds far more good than bad,” Watkins said. The Children’s Area includes a permanent display of handpainted tiles bearing messages of support and hope from children, as well as erasable slate where young visitors to the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial can leave messages every day.
If the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial is a place for reflection and thought, the Memorial Museum carries the full impact of the bombing, and the strong message of hope the Memorial Mission wanted to convey.
“I have seen people emerge from that Museum in every possible emotional state, from tears to flag-waving pride,” Watkins said. “There is Refelction Station where we ask visitors to make comments, and over and over again they tell us it was one of the most moving experiences they ever had.”
The Museum is divided into ten “chapters” spanning two floors of the Journal-Record Building – including one area left exactly as it was in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, with collapsed interior walls and ceilings. Early in the Museum experience, visitors enter a reconstruction of a hearing room in a now-demolished adjacent building, where a tape recorder was running that day. They hear the enormous blast of the bomb and the screams of the injured.
From there, the Memorial Museum uses artifacts and extensive video presentations to tell the story of the first hours after the bombing, the extensive rescue and recovery operations and the creation of the Memorial itself.
One seemingly simple display is of a pocket knife and a length of rope – until the overhead video reveals how those items were used by a surgeon who crawled into the rubble to amputate the leg of a trapped survivor. Other videos tell the tales of those who lost children in the America's Kids day care center, located on the second floor of the Murrah building, of the buried injured, and of fire and police personnel who rushed to their aid. At intervals, visitors can pause at computer terminals to call up written accounts from survivors, rescuers and volunteers.
“We advise visitors to allow at least an hour, and preferably two, to go through the Memorial Museum,” Watkins said. “There is a great deal to absorb.”
The Museum also includes a Children’s Area, a Gallery of Honor with photos and artifacts from the 168 who died and several timeline exhibits detailing the hunt for the bombers, their capture and the trials that convicted them. Those sections are slightly off the main flow of the Museum, allowing visitors to choose to bypass them if they wish.
“This is not just a museum about a crime,” Watkins said. “Most of all it is a place to remember those we lost and the brave and noble way the world responded and the hope that transended out of the horror.”
The Memorial Museum also includes an area for special exhibits.
On the ground floor of the building is a Memorial Museum store, which sells books about the bombing and other memorabilia. There is no admission to the outdoor Memorial, which is open at all times. A nominal admission is charged to the Memorial Museum, which is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day. All proceeds are used to fund Memorial operations and upkeep.
In January 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law a bill that dissolved the Oklahoma City National Memorial Trust and transferred the Memorial to the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation, the 501(c)(3) organization that originally created and organized, raised the money and built the Memorial and Museum. The National Park Service is authorized under the legislation to continue to provide the same level of interpretive services they always have on the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial.
As an affiliate, or private partner, of the National Park System, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is owned, operated and maintained by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation.
620 N. Harvey, Oklahoma City | 405.235.3313 888.542.HOPE
©2011 Oklahoma City National Memorial