9/11 Museum gift shop: Hoodies and anger

The wreckage of a fire truck on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The National September 11 Museum has a destroyed fire engine on display and toy fire engines for sale in its gift shop

At the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened to the public on Wednesday, visitors can view the wreckage of a New York Fire Department engine, a steel beam from one of the World Trade Center towers, and photographs of those who died in the attacks.

When they're done, they can wander through the museum's gift shop and buy 9/11 coffee mugs and t-shirts, toy fire engines, a "darkness hoodie" emblazoned with the outline of the Twin Towers, a silk scarf with the New York skyline and buttons featuring pictures of the "dogs of 9/11".

"To me, it's the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died," Diane Horning, whose son worked in the World Trade Center, told the New York Post. She notes that the memorial features a room where the unidentified remains of victims of the attack are stored.

"Here is essentially our tomb of the unknown," she said. "To sell baubles I find quite shocking and repugnant."

Jim Riches, father of a firefighter who died on 9/11, also feels offended. "Basically, they're making money off of my son's dead body," he told CNN. "I think that's disgusting."

The juxtaposition of the solemn and the commercial has prompted a vigorous debate in the media about the gift shop's decorum.

"What, no World Trade Center shot glasses or firefighter teddy bears?" asks Townhall's Cortney O'Brien. "How can this museum stand to turn Americans' pain into profit?"

Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, has answered such criticism by noting that the museum receives no public funds and relies on revenue from admissions tickets and the gift shop to fund its operations.

"To provide an opportunity to buy a keepsake and have those proceeds support this open and free memorial is something I would do seven days a week," he said to CNN.

That would be fine, writes Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar, if the shop weren't full of "tasteless kitcsch".

"The purpose of the 9/11 museum shop is to raise money for the institution, which is certainly a noble goal," he says. "But many of the items there in come across as gross, callous consumer opportunism. It's not just tacky - it's offensive."

Souvenir stores, of course, are a ubiquitous part of the museum experience around the world. There are gift shops at the Gettysburg battlefield, Pearl Harbor's USS Arizona Memorial, the US Holocaust Museum, the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. There's even a bookstore at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which sells posters and postcards (but no T-shirts).

The difference, writes the American Conservative's Rick Moran, is that the 9/11 museum is on "sacred ground" - the actual site where the buildings once stood.

"The Gettysburg gift shop is in the Heritage Center, and the Arizona bookshop/gift shop is in the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center," he writes. "It would be like a floating gift shop over the USS Arizona or putting a commercial kiosk at The Angle at Gettysburg.

Several writers argue that the 9/11 gift shop isn't just acceptable, it's appropriate.

"It's important to keep in mind what the towers symbolised," writes Mediaite's Luke O'Neil. "It's the reason they were attacked, after all, the vast monoliths of grand American capitalism."

He continues:

What better way to memorialise that than by a store that sells useless, overpriced bobbles to people with too much disposable income, who have no need for, or really any idea why they'd want to buy, any of it in the first place? Forget a tower, that right there is the American dream writ large.

Everyone is rushing to profit off 9/11, whether "professionally or monetarily", he says, "including every politician and publication in the world".

"There's nothing so horrifying that we can't as Americans spin it into a quick buck," he concludes. "The entire damn country is already a 9/11 gift shop. What's wrong with one more?"

Thinkprogress's Jessica Goldstein recalls President George W Bush's urging the US public to defy the perpetrators of the attacks by going about their daily lives. "Do your business around the country," he said.

"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," she writes. "What's more all-American than commerce?"

Steve Kandell, whose sister Shari died on 9/11, writes in Buzzfeed that it was the controversy over the gift shop that prompted him to visit the museum during its families-only preview on Sunday.

"I didn't want to duck and hide, I wanted to run straight into the absurdity and horror and feel every bit of the righteous indignation and come out the other side raw," he says.

By the time he reached the gift shop, however, his indignation "just isn't there":

I stare at the $39 hoodies and the rescue vests for dogs and the earrings and the scarves and the United We Stand wool blankets waiting for that rush and can't muster so much as a sigh. The events of the day have already been exploited and sold in ways previously incomprehensible, why get mad at a commemorative t-shirt now? This tchotchke store - this building, this experience - is nothing more than the logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy.

As Kandell alludes in his piece, the gift shop controversy highlights a bigger conflict, as Americans continue to come to terms with 9/11. Everyone has a story about that day. For some, the connection is tenuous - just a time spent in front of a TV, watching the horror unfold. For others, like Kandell, it was a personal, life-altering tragedy.

"Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark," he writes. "And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely."

The gift shop isn't for the survivors and families of 9/11, it's for the public, for the people who watched the attacks on TV and have flocked to the World Trade Center site for years, buying T-shirts and key chains from street vendors even while the wreckage was still being cleared. Eventually, it will be for the people who only learn about 9/11 in books or TV documentaries, as those who experienced the attacks fade away. Just like those connected to Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor, or Auschwitz have.

In the end - in America - the public will get what the public wants. And the public wants its souvenirs.