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‘Crass commercialism’ at 9/11 museum protested

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Members of the media tour the National September 11 Memorial Museum last week in New York. The museum's gift shop has upset many victims' family members. (AP Photo)

Members of the media tour the National September 11 Memorial Museum last week in New York. The museum’s gift shop has upset many victims’ family members. (AP Photo)

Mugs, T-shirts, scarves and other souvenirs have triggered controversy at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which holds unidentified remains of some of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – as well as a gift shop.

It isn’t unusual for museums that commemorate tragedy to have gift shops, which help cover operational costs. There’s one at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, and another at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

But ground zero?

“It’s crass commercialism on a literally sacred site,” Kurt Horning, whose son Matthew died on 9/11, said in a telephone interview Monday. “It’s a burial ground. We don’t think there should be those things offered on that spot.

“If you want to do it, do it someplace else – but not right there.”

The New York Post was the first to wonder about the wisdom of selling souvenirs at the site in a Sunday story. The tabloid’s cover headline: “Little shop of horror.”

Nearly 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. During last week’s dedication, President Barack Obama called the site of the memorial and museum “this sacred place.”

The museum will open to the public today, but families of 9/11 victims, along with rescue and recovery workers, were able to visit the facility last week for a preview – during which the gift shop was open for business.

“They’re down there selling bracelets; they’re making money off my dead son,” said Jim Riches, whose firefighter son, Jimmy, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Riches, speaking by phone Monday, added: “I won’t go down there as along as those body parts are in the museum.”

Some of the items for sale in the gift shop are clearly intended to tap into the sense of solidarity that emerged in New York following the attacks, like the plain black T-shirts with the tagline “honor, remember, reunite.” But others, like a black hoodie with the twin towers emblazoned on the front, seem more of a vivid and painful reminder of what was lost. And some pieces of New York City Fire Department memorabilia – including a doggie vest and toy truck – seem kitschy or trivial.

In a written statement, Michael Frazier, the nonprofit 9/11 museum’s senior vice president of communications and digital media, said the items sold at the gift shop were “carefully selected.”

“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,” Frazier said. “The museum store is open during this free dedication period when guests include 9/11 family members, rescuers, recovery workers, survivors and the residents of the local community.”

“In fact, many of our guests from the 9/11 community have visited the shop and purchased a keepsake from their historic experience,” he wrote.

The 9/11 museum isn’t the only memorial to tragedy or death to include a gift shop.

Arlington National Cemetery has a small bookstore that sells items including lapel pins, magnets and T-shirts to commemorate the Tomb of the Unknowns. At the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii, the non-profit Pacific Historic Parks operates a gift shop whose proceeds pay for programming.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington also has a museum shop, which is stocked with a range of items including books, “Never Again” patches, menorahs and World War II posters.

When the museum opened in 1993, items for the gift store were selected with an intense degree of sensitivity, said Ruth Mandel, who served as vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council for a dozen years.

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