Over 300,000 people have visited the Sept. 11 museum since it opened little more than a month ago, exceeding expectations, officials said this week.
Organizers see it as a strong start for the ground zero museum, which had faced questions about its $24 ticket price. The attendance total has topped projections by about 5 percent since the institution opened to the public May 21 and to 9/11 survivors and victims' relatives six days earlier, President Joe Daniels said.
Joe Lock and his family had visited the World Trade Center on a trip from Fort Wayne, Indiana, a month before the 2001 terror attacks. On returning to New York this month, "this was one of the first things we wanted to see," he said as they left the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum on Tuesday.
"It lets you heal a little bit," said Lock, 56, a lab manager.
Built amid the former World Trade Center's footprints, the underground museum was designed as a more historical, immersive complement to the memorial plaza and waterfall pools above. The museum includes profiles of the nearly 3,000 victims, recordings of survivors telling their stories, and artifacts ranging from a giant trade center column to shoes shed as people fled the burning towers.
Organizers have said they hope to draw 2.5 million visitors a year, and Daniels says they projected 1.5 million from its opening through the rest of 2014. The estimates vary month by month because of seasonal tourism patterns and the museum's newness, museum officials said.
"We feel great about the numbers," Daniels said by phone.
Besides serving as a measure of interest, attendance is key to the museum's finances. Admissions are to cover much of the $63 million-a-year cost of running the museum and memorial (visiting the plaza is free); they don't get government operating money. But the fee has drawn criticism from some Sept. 11 victims' relatives who see it as prohibitively steep, though some other victims' families say it's needed to keep the museum financially healthy.
The museum has faced some flaps in its first weeks, including complaints about a gift shop where wares initially included a U.S.-map-shaped platter with heart symbols marking where the hijacked planes struck on 9/11. The piece is no longer sold there, and Daniels has pledged to seek more input on products from victims' relatives on the museum board.
While visitors converge on the museum from around the world, it has stirred mixed feelings among New Yorkers. Some are staying away: "It's too political for me," Brooklyn engineering student Ako Morie, 35, said Tuesday as he took a break in midtown Manhattan.
But early data show more museum goers are from New York state than any other, and New Jersey is third after California, Daniels said.
For Pam Gregory, who lives on Staten Island, revisiting 9/11 at the museum Tuesday was "like reliving it again."
"It's quite amazing — very sad, but necessary," she said. "Absolutely necessary."