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.