Parsing the outrage over the 9/11 museum shop

When it comes to tragedy, there’s a thin line between solemn commemoration and crass commercialization.

Actually, it’s often not very thin, and it’s crossed all the time.

The New York Post recently reported that relatives of 9/11 victims are outraged that the National September 11 Memorial Museum will be home to a gift shop that peddles T-shirts, mugs, and rescue dog vests, as well as books and other educational material relating to the deadly terrorist attack.

“To me, it’s the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died,” the mother of one victim told the Post.

The visceral response of a parent who will always feel the agony of loss is understandable. But as a ThinkProgress article points out, museums dedicated to all sorts of tragedies — from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to the Oklahoma City Museum, which commemorates a domestic terrorist attack — have gift shops.

Indeed, as the article notes, not having a museum shop would be the aberration. And the commercialization of tragedy is not just an American phenomenon. There’s a bookstore at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, and souvenirs are available at Anne Frank’s House.

Museums rely on these shops for revenue. According to 9/11 Memorial officials, the nonprofit relies on private fundraising, donations, ticket revenue and “carefully selected keepsake items for retail.”

And it is not alone when it comes to the tragedy trade.

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Daily Mail reported that the U.S. Patent and Trademark office received applications from two retailers rushing to market the “Boston Strong” slogan. Since then, “Boston Strong” has morphed into its own hashtag, and the slogan is used to sell T-shirts and hats, among a plethora of other products. In some, but not all, cases, proceeds are donated to Marathon bombing-related charities.

A profit motive connected to tragedy is definitely offensive to some. New York magazine reported on a social-media backlash to holiday ornaments and dog sweaters commemorating Hurricane Sandy. And the abundance of Boston Marathon-related merchandise has led to people asking if “Boston Strong” has gone too far.

But what’s offensive to some is fine with others, or retailers wouldn’t roll the taste dice. After all, no one’s forcing anyone to buy a Boston Strong bracelet or 9/11 magnet.

A few weeks ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial site. Even without access to the museum, which is just now opening, the emotional impact is enormous. It feels like the sacred ground it is to those who lost loved ones. As the official Memorial Plaza website explains, the name of every person who died in the terrorist attacks of Feb. 26, 1993, and Sept. 11, 2001, is inscribed in bronze around twin memorial ponds, which sit within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. It’s at once intimate and massive. One World Trade Center — also known as the Freedom Tower — soars nearby.

Throngs of visitors quietly took it all in that spring weekend. But of course, being tourists, they also took pictures of each other, just as if they were standing in front of the Grand Canyon or Eiffel Tower. The exit path took us directly past the gift shop that existed before the museum even opened. The natural instinct was to enter what The New York Post called the “Little Shop of Horror,” but might more accurately be dubbed a shop of knick-knacks.

As a dog lover, I was tempted by a book profiling rescue dogs who tirelessly worked the 9/11 site in search of victims. But in the end, I didn’t buy anything. It just didn’t feel right.

That’s the choice we all have in a free society built on capitalism and the right to be outraged by it or not.

© 2013 The Boston Globe

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Obama’s hard stance on ISIS a long time coming

    Listening to the president’s address to the nation regarding the crisis with ISIS or ISIL if you prefer, I was struck by the lack of indignation in the president’s presentation. Where was the visible anger, the fist-pounding oratory that made it clear in no uncertain terms the nation would not tolerate this threat to our interests and, for that matter, humanity?

  • D.C. government guilty of abusing drivers

    “You are guilty until you have proven yourself innocent. … That has worked well for us.”

  • Domestic violence puts some women on the path to incarceration

    Domestic violence is a hot topic right now — a conversation being fueled by what we’ve witnessed inside a fancy hotel elevator and on the stage of the Miss America pageant.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category