Catharsis consumerism at the 9/11 memorial museum

The social satire writes itself, our columnist suggests



Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Immediately after 9/11, then-president George W. Bush told Americans to get on with their lives—to travel, to spend, to keep the economy going—lest the terrorists win. So there’s some weird synchronicity in the fact that the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which opens to the public today, has become an exemplar of an emerging trend best described as “catharsis consumerism,” wherein every experience, no matter how profound, sacred, distressing or uplifting, requires some take-away or enjoyment. The 9/11 museum, a site commemorating the most horrific event to take place on American soil—one that resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and that now houses unidentified human remains—has come under attack itself for boasting a gift shop selling FDNY dog vests, silk scarves adorned with images of the the fallen twin towers, and Pandora charms. In “Little Shop of Horrors,” the New York Post quotes Diane Horning, whose son died at the World Trade Center, expressing her anger that the place feels like a cheap roadside attraction: “To me, it’s the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died.”

Horning is also unhappy that a restaurant will open on the site, the details of which became public yesterday. Danny Meyer, who operates the Union Square Café and is one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs, will operate the 80-seat Pavillion Café slated to open this summer. In a release, Meyer describes his latest venture in a burial site in sombre terms as “a place to rest, to reflect and, hopefully, to be restored.” All is carefully cloaked in tastefulness and patriotism. Visitors will be offered a “subdued, seasonal, mostly vegetarian menu” with soul-nurturing “comfort foods like tomato soup, grilled cheese and brownies.” Appetizers (ricotta with peas, salmon confit, red-lentil hummus) will be “designed to be shared.” The focus is on made-in-the-USA: “ingredients from local farms” and “New York-made draft beers and American wines.”

The social satire writes itself. It’s also a modern truism that you can’t run a cultural institution without providing consumer take-away—hence, gift shops selling Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired dish towels and Klimt-inspired earrings, along with first-rate restaurants. Meyer’s Modern, located in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is always packed. Anyone who visited the touring According to What? Ai Weiwei show last year will have faced the ironic spectre of viewing antique Chinese vases painted as political insurrection in the exhibit, which were then reproduced and repackaged as trendy home decor for purchase on the way out. Context, as they say, is everything.

It’s received wisdom that gift shops and restaurants pay the bills and keep the operation open, as the 9/11 Memorial pointed out in a statement: “To care for the Memorial and Museum, our organization relies on private fundraising, gracious donations and revenue from ticketing and carefully selected keepsake items for retail.” Critics of the museum, which has been mired in controversy from Day 1, counter that the gift shop is required to offset a poorly run operation with inflated executive salaries.

It’s no surprise there’s been backlash to the backlash to the the 9/11 gift shop by some people marshalling the, “Hey, everybody else does it” argument beloved by seven-year-olds. And it’s true that museums commemorating grief or war or historical tragedy—the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum—have souvenir stops. You can buy posters and postcards at Anne Frank’s house, and books at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It isn’t difficult to mount a Mobius-strip argument that catharsis consumerism nurtures connectivity in a consumer culture. But it’s one thing to buy a history book at Auschewitz, another to pick up a pair of  “blossom earrings” at the 9/11 museum. The first instructs, the second is intended to make you feel good. And that’s the crux of the uproar: the irreconcilable disconnect between the comfort and pleasure being experienced by visitors to the latest NYC tourist attraction and the reason why they are there, a rupture no amount of buying crap memorabilia will ever begin to heal.

Filed under:

Catharsis consumerism at the 9/11 memorial museum

  1. Earth is overrun with monuments to the dead… and we can’t keep them going without souvenir shops.

    Maybe someday we’ll have sites to honour accomplishments and the people who created them, instead. Things that promoted life and advances……….

    • Monuments to the dead:

      1. Magna Carta
      2. Democracy
      3. Technology
      4. Rule of Law and Human rights.

      These accomplishments don’t need souvenir shops. But in many parts of the world……I’m sure they’d love to have these 4 things…..even it it means they have to buy kitschy items to keep them going.

      • You just say stuff to say stuff, doncha….blatherskite every afternoon

  2. Americans kill thousands of people in various conflicts around the world without much fanfare. But the hype and martyred attitude about the 9/11 fiasco seems to go on forever and ever. It’s almost like, “how dare they attack the USA?” Or, “what did we do to them to deserve this?” Move on America and start by working on making a better world for EVERYONE.

    • Arctic Guy noted:
      “Americans kill thousands of people in various conflicts around the world without much fanfare”

      Yeah…..that 2nd World War thingy…..no big deal. Why did they even bother. Who cares if Europe is predominately democratic now because of American involvement.

      And then this gem:
      “It’s almost like, “how dare they attack the USA?” Or, “what did we do to them to deserve this?”

      The question of course, to Arctic Guy then, “What did they do to deserve it? Are you saying it was justified?”

      Your “sharia” is showing.

    • Arctic Guy: One more thing.

      “the hype and martyred attitude about the 9/11 fiasco ”

      The fact you would refer to 9/11 in this manner, pretty much sums up your level of thought.

      The gun registry in Canada: That was a fiasco.
      Obama Care: That is a fiasco
      Ontario under McGinty and Wynne: That was / is a fiasco.
      Hillary clinton’s handling and cover-up of Benghazi: That was a fiasco.

      9/11: This was a wake up call (or should have been) that there are millions of fanatics in the world who hate everything the West stands for…..and now they want nukes.

      • I went to ground zero in 2007. It was six years after the tragedy and there was a big hole in the ground. They were dismantling the Deutshe Bank Building after coming to the realization that it was not fit for rehabilitation. The church across from ground zero was set up as a memorial site and NYC firemen were selling books and other memorabilia, as well as posing for photo’s.
        I was shocked. Not by the hawking of the memorabilia but at the delay in getting things done at the site. I don’t dispute that these families have lost very much but they have also demanded an extraordinary amount of say in every step of the recovery and building process. I have also heard that some have sued the government and the airlines over the catastrophe. Building a consensus among this group was a long and arduous task and hat’s off to the people of New York for undertaking it. If anyone believes that any museum can thrive without generating some sort of funds and in the process, offending some people, I would be interested to hear their ideas. The families initially wanted the whole area of ground zero to be devoted to a park like the Oklahoma City bombing site but that was completely unrealistic unless they had plans to fund raise to pay for the lease of that extremely expensive piece of real estate in lower Manhattan.

  3. As a museum professional, the fact of the matter remains that cultural institutions have had their budgets slashed to the bone in recent years, especially in the USA and England. A major museum in England had its operating budget slashed by 50% in one budget year not long ago. Many American museums are totally strapped and can’t get basic grants now that once were available even five years ago. The irony of this problem with the 9/11 museum is that the war on terror stemming from Sept 11 has been so costly and contributed so much debt to an already broke American economy that museums went even further down the funding priority totem pole. The 9/11 museum reflects that reality. The impact of that one day rippled through so many layers of daily life for everyone. They can’t operate without additional revenue streams in this current climate.

    For the grieving 9/11 families, it seems that ANY on site source of revenue is perceived as heartless. I can certainly sympathize with that. However, without some sort of income, a major project that is a monument to their loved ones can not exist.

    I do agree, however, that there are limits to what is tasteful and sensitive. I am very interested in the Titanic, but my personal line in the sand came in London at the Science Museum where actual pieces of coal from the wreck site were being sold as cheap trinkets in the shop. Reproduction earrings? Not for me, thanks, but actual grave robbing was past the limit.

Sign in to comment.