The 9-11 Gift Shop is Not For Us

I am not surprised to read that family members, residents of New York City and others are upset with the contents being sold at the 9-11 Memorial and Museum’s gift shop. As someone who lost a close family member in the South Tower of the World Trade Center I get it. Reports on this controversy are quick to point out that “Ground Zero” is not the only site of death and violence whose museums include gift shops, but they overlook one key factor.

First, visitors to places such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and even (in most cases) the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. are sufficiently removed from the events that they commemorate.  Visitors can interact with the landscape and/or an exhibit as an observer. We can purchase key chains, t-shirts and other souvenirs with little concern. It goes without saying that at this point that is not possible when visiting the site of the 9-11 attacks.

The problem is not with the gift shop per se. Americans have a knack for commercializing the darkest aspects of our history and culture. The problem, rather, is the timing. It’s simply too soon to build a museum, which is something I’ve hinted at from the beginning. There was talk of a memorial and museum even before the debris had been removed from the site.

In fact, based on the reviews of the exhibit space that I’ve already read I get the sense that the museum itself is little more than an extension of the memorial. The exhibit does a wonderful job of highlighting the personal stories of those lost, the survivors and first responders, but I see very little attempt to treat the event as history. How can it at this point given the amount of influence that the 9-11 families have had on every aspect of the shaping of this site. This is not a criticism. Like I said, I get it.

How we interact with this site will change in the coming decades as the generation who lived through these events fades from the scene. At that point visitors will find little that is problematic with doing a little shopping and grabbing a bite to eat after finishing their tour of the grounds.

The gift shop is a sobering reminder that our emotional and morally charged connection to the events of 9-11 are fleeting.

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11 thoughts on “The 9-11 Gift Shop is Not For Us

  1. Rob Baker

    First, visitors to places such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and even (in most cases) the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. are sufficiently removed from the events that they commemorate. Visitors can interact with the landscape and/or an exhibit as an observer. We can purchase key chains, t-shirts and other souvenirs with little concern. It goes without saying that at this point that is not possible when visiting the site of the 9-11 attacks.

    Arlington National Cemetery has a gift shop. People are buried there every year. I personally don’t mind these types of gift shops at large museums and memorials because they help to fund and upkeep those sites. The people that are the most vociferous complainers, are usually the same ones who don’t want taxes raised for such funding. I’m not lumping you in that category of course.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I am not even complaining about the 9-11 gift shop. The problem as I see it is that the gift shop is attached not to a museum, but to a memorial. This is the result of deciding to build a “museum” so soon after the event in question.

      Reply
  2. Ray Ortensie

    The question I have is why even build a museum next to the memorial? Doesn’t that take away from the memorial? Does the Jefferson Memorial have a museum attached to it? Does the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have a museum attached to it? Why not let the 9-11 memorial stand alone as the historical significance? I’m sure there are other museums within NYC that could have a set aside exhibit space for the historical interpretation of the event.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Ray,

      I do think that part of the problem is the proximity of the museum to the gift shop. They serve different functions, but in this case the lines are blurred for now. I suspect that within a few decades the museum exhibits will reflect a more emotionally detached perspective than can begin to deal with 9-11 as history. The problem with the gift shop will also lessen.

      Reply
  3. chris Coleman

    9/11 was a national tragedy, of that everyone can agree; I also agree that it is way too soon to be building a museum, much less sell souvenirs. I think the very idea is in bad taste; far better would have been a simple memorial with the names of the slain engraved, as with the Vietnam memorial. That being said, I also recognize the tragedy of 9/11 has been exploited for either personal or political gain almost from the beginning. I’m assuming the real motivation (versus the official justification) for building the museum was as a fig leaf to gloss over the building another Wall Street high rise on the site of where a mass murder occurred. It’s akin to building an office park on the site of Dachau. Greed will out, after all.

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  4. Brendan Bossard

    Even without the museum, the memorial needs to be funded. So the question is, “if not the gift shop, then what?”

    I would be more concerned about the gift shop if people were profiteering from it. But according to the gift shop’s own web site at http://www.911memorial.org/catalog: “All net proceeds from our sales are dedicated to developing and sustaining the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Thank you for helping to build a lasting place for remembrance, reflection, and learning for years to come.” Now, it seems to me to be a reasonable method of fund-raising for something that will continue to be necessary; and funds are needed now, not however long from now it takes for people to feel comfortable with the notion of having a museum and/or a gift shop.

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  5. Ann Kunkle-Jones

    I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit for the last few days as it has been in the news and I know people who are from New York and were blocks from the World Trade Center on that day. They have a very different perspective on these issues than I do and make me rethink what I think I know.

    A couple of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head – when does an event become history? Can this be a different timeline depending upon how close a person is to the event? Living in Wisconsin at the time of the event; still living here, and never having been to New York City – the whole event and aftermath seems very remote and foreign. For me, I think it becomes a historical event much quicker than people who were directly affected by it or who currently live there and are confronted with the site daily.

    My second thought – my son is currently 16 almost 17 years old. He was only 4 when 9/11 happened and he has no memory or context for the event. He doesn’t get the huge change it made to our country. It is all ready a historical event for him. It is an abstract event and he cannot put it in context without a great deal of assistance. He would benefit greatly from a visit to a memorial/museum. He will be an adult and college student very soon. Our incoming college freshmen are only a year older and would have been 5 or so when 9/11 happened. It is not a current event to them – it seems like ancient history. Especially when a majority of the students I work with have never been out of the state of Wisconsin and probably have no direct connection to the event or the city. How do we as educators try to convey what this means? Can the museum be a necessity for these students?

    As for the gift shop issue….I honestly don’t know what I think. I greatly appreciated the gift shops at Dachau, The Holocaust Museum, The Lincoln Memorial, Gettysburg, etc. as it is a place I can immediately get resources as I visit the site. I mainly look for education items and resources, but I am also looking at supporting the sites.

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