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Why The 9/11 Museum Has A Gift Shop

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"Why The 9/11 Museum Has A Gift Shop"

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CREDIT: John Munson/Associated Press

There is a gift shop at the 9/11 Museum.

Like just about everything else involving the museum, the decision to include a gift shop has been fraught with controversy. The visceral dislike of a gift shop in this space is easy to understand: there’s something about it that feels tasteless at best and heartless at worst. We’re talking about a place that still houses unidentified human remains. Should this also be a place where you can buy “blossom earrings”?

Here’s a better question: Why not have a gift shop at the 9/11 Museum?

Diane Horning, mother of a victim, is quoted in the New York Post as saying, “To me, it’s the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died.” According to the Post, she “also objects to the museum café.”

But if the 9/11 Museum were to not have a store, it would be perhaps the first museum of its kind to do so. There is, in fact, plenty of precedent for including a gift shop in a museum that exists to document a tragedy. What there isn’t precedent for is not having a gift shop.

You can visit a store as you exit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can buy posters and postcards at Anne Frank’s house. Pearl Harbor sells souvenirs; it also has a snack bar. At Gettysburg, you can buy everything from peach grilling sauce to a necklace made of pennies. There’s a bookstore at Auschwitz-Birkenaeu.

A gift shop is on the premises at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, just beside where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building stood before Timothy McVeigh loaded a 2-ton bomb made out of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and a smattering of other chemicals inside a rented Ryder truck, lit two fuses, and blew a third of the building to rubble.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

CREDIT: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Museum is probably the most analogous space to the 9/11 Museum. Both sit at the site where people lived—where they worked, took coffee breaks, gossiped about coworkers and complained about their bosses—until it was the place where they died. McVeigh’s bomb went off at 9:02 a.m.; hijackers flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. The Oklahoma City Museum’s opening day was February 11, 2001, less than six years after the bombing; the 9/11 Museum opens to the public just over twelve years after the attack. The Oklahoma City bombing was then the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, a title 9/11 now holds.

Yet news coverage from the opening of the museum in Oklahoma—coverage that predates Twitter, Facebook, and online media as we now know it—barely mentions backlash to the gift shop. Within months of its opening, as The New York Times reported, the store was “thriving.” “No one likes to admit that the memorial needs to make money from selling T-shirts and coffee mugs, but it does: it is a self-supporting nonprofit organization, and the gift shop helps pay operating expenses.”

Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City Museum, said the gift shops serve two important purposes. They help visitors commemorate the event, and they make a museum fiscally possible. “People come from around the world. They want to remember. They want a token to take back with them,” she said. In the case of her museum, “The store is 25% of our museum revenue.”

There’s been a gift shop at the Oklahoma City Museum since it opened, she said. “We had people who didn’t like it,” she added, even though everything that’s sold there has to be “very mission-related. We’re heavy on the books, postcards, apparel, some things that kids can relate to.” Today, the store at the Oklahoma City Museum offers the same type of merchandise as the 9/11 store: stuffed puppies in rescue dog vests, “Survivor Tree” Christmas ornaments, mugs, charms, apparel.

“At our shop, we don’t sell traditional things you would see at a lot of places,” Watkins said. “Although if we had them, people would buy them. I’m told that every day by our gift shop staff.”

Watkins has been to the 9/11 site “a dozen times or so” to consult on the design of the museum. (When we spoke by phone, she was in New York; she hadn’t yet visited the completed site.) “It’s all very tastefully done,” she said, and there’s been a gift shop since before the official opening of the museum. “People were lined up outside to buy stuff.”

As for survivors and family members of victims, Watkins said, “It’s high emotion. If you lost a child at the site, or your husband died there, or you survived at that site, and you go and visit that museum, you’re reliving all of that horrible day. And that’s a very hard thing to live with. So I think it’s a sensitive subject. But in the end, you have to be able to fund the site.”

President Barack Obama speaks at the dedication ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial Museum on Thursday, May 15, 2014 in New York.

President Barack Obama speaks at the dedication ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial Museum on Thursday, May 15, 2014 in New York.

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Angelillo, Pool

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans sells, among other things, Rosie the Riveter posters, an American World War II-themed Monopoly set, and baseball caps for every branch of the military. “People wear those hats around the museum, and when people see them wearing those hats, they walk up and thank them for their service,” said Rachel Haney, a museum spokesperson. “And that’s something we couldn’t have if we didn’t have a store… All those things are incredibly positive and touching.”

The point of the shop, Haney said, is to educate visitors even after they leave. “There’s so much to learn, we could never possibly teach every person everything they need to know about World War II inside the museum.”

The inclusion of a gift shop at the 9/11 Museum brings to mind then-President Bush’s speech in the aftermath of the attacks. Contrary to popular legend, he never actually told citizens to “go shopping,” but he did implore Americans to go about their regular capitalist lives: “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” And in his book, Decision Points, Bush clarifies that “In the threat-filled months after 9/11, traveling on airplanes, visiting tourist destinations, and, yes, going shopping, were acts of defiance and patriotism.” So there is a way of reading the gift shop as a kind of continuation of those acts: to have a gift shop is a small (weird, possibly insensitive) victory against people who hate capitalism. What’s more all-American than commerce?

Besides, without a store, there might be no museum at all. “To be able to tell the story and turn the lights on,” said Watkins. “You have to be able to pay the bills.”

Update

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, in response to widespread criticism, the 9/11 gift shop will have a stricter vetting process for items that can be sold. Family members who sit on the 9/11 memorial foundation board will be consulted on merchandise while inside the museum store, so the vetters can “see the items in the context of what many regard as a sacred space.” Already off the shelves: a ceramic platter with little hearts (!!!) at the places where hijacked planes made impact.

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