Co.Design

How Museum Gift Shops Sell Tragedy

The 9/11 Memorial Museum gift shop is taking heat for selling cheap souvenirs on the back of a horrific national tragedy. Here's how other memorial museums handle the sensitive subject of trinket capitalism.

Even before the 9/11 Memorial Museum gift shop opened May 21, it was arousing fierce controversy. The sale of trinkets, from Tribute of Light iPhone cases to “rescue dog” stuffed animals, fired up the tabloids, mainstream news sites, and some families of 9/11 victims, who argued that the cheap souvenirs made light of a horrible tragedy. Consider some of the headlines: "The 9/11 Museum’s Absurd Gift Shop," "Families Infuriated by ‘Crass Commercialism’ of 9/11 Museum Gift Shop," and "9/11 Museum Gift Shop and Cafe: Appropriate or Insulting to Victims?"

In response, the museum promised to keep the souvenirs tasteful--and pull the worst offender from its shelves, a white cheese plate map of America with three heart dots where the planes crashed that day.

Photograph by Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Museum gift shops tied to horrific historical moments are not new. You’ll find one at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and one at the museum dedicated to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Texas. The concept of profiting from a tragic event might seem distasteful, but we talked to curators of memorial gift shops who see things differently. They insist that souvenirs serve an important purpose: To give the public a way to take home a piece of history, or hope. The trick is to really understand what the public wants.

The Sixth Floor Museum

The Sixth Floor Museum could not be set on a darker piece of real estate. It begins at the infamous sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald stood when he assassinated JFK.

“We understand what the 9/11 museum is going through,” Executive Director Nicola Longford tells Co.Design. “All of the museums where I have worked, there have been issues and complaints about some products being sold . . . you can’t please everyone, but on sensitive subjects like death or memorials you have to be extremely careful.”

The Sixth Floor Museum relies on the hive mind of its staff to decide if any items sold are in poor taste. The museum's only policy approaching a hard rule is to avoid gruesome images from the event. There are two gift shops--one in the building itself and one across the street to service the general area. The first primarily sells books related to JFK, along with more traditionally touristy items like commemorative coins and stamps, and even costume jewelry inspired by Jackie O. The second is a cafe and '60s-themed shop. Here you can buy a child an astronaut costume, rock ‘n roll paraphernalia, or even a presidential cookbook.

A few years ago, the museum caught a wave of bad press when one reporter pointed out a dark pun--that feet from where Kennedy was assassinated, the Sixth Floor's cafe sold “shots of espresso.” In turn, the organization adopted different phrasing* for the beverage.

“It was a human mistake,” Longford says. “There are a lot of petty criticism, but once it’s out there, you have to address it. It influences how people view your site.”

One of the biggest points of contention in the museum's recent history was whether or not to install a penny-stamper machine. Penny stampers might be fairly ubiquitous at museums, but they're the ultimate tourist tchotchke. “We debated about this for a very long time, but this is what many of our visitors want,” Longford says--pointing out that they had also opted to support the passport stamp books that national parks use, too. “If there’s a way to hook young people particularly, we think we’re doing a good thing,” she says.

The gift shops are a significant source of revenue, Longford says, but they’re also satisfying the demand of the public. Case in point: The “vast majority” of visitors to the Sixth Floor Museum buy something before leaving, she says. “We do have a role in helping people remember their experience here,” Longford says. “We want people to leave honoring the site, remembering those who lost their lives there, and that they can still better appreciate what happened and not forget.”

The Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance

Across the street from the Sixth Floor Museum sits the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance. The museum takes visitors inside the history of Jewish genocide, mapping lessons from that history to the modern day.

It has a single gift shop. It’s tiny and filled mostly with books--all of which are considered by the center's Director of Education, who has a PhD in both Jewish and Holocaust studies--along with a few items like bracelets that convey words like “hope.” Most of the visitors are between the age of 10 and 16, visiting as part of a Texas state school requirement, and the items are $5 and under. When we ask Director of Marketing and Communications Paula Nourse if the gift shop is a major source of the museum’s revenue, she laughs; the museum barely has room to squeeze in the limited inventory it has, she says. So why operate a gift shop at all?

Image: Courtesy of the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance

“We’re trying to make what we sell in the museum support our mission statement and who we are,” Nourse explains, referencing the museum’s slogan "History that Moves." “People come out of our museum, with a frame of mind--we’ve researched this--of tolerance, acceptance, and never-again attitudes. We try to give them things that address those issues in terms of the trinkets and things like that.”

These trinkets might seem like a shallow way to commemorate the Holocaust--a pencil with the museum’s name on it, or an Anne Frank aphorism printed on coffee cup--but to Nourse, they extend the message of the museum outside of the museum itself. They urge visitors to, as she says, “remember the hope."

When we ask Nourse what she thought of the public’s reaction to the now-infamous 9/11 cheese plate, she says, “They’re right about this. I don’t think it’s appropriate." She points back to her own museum's philosophy, which draws a line--albeit a thin one--between what's appropriate and what's offensive. "We’re not selling items to sell Holocaust, murder, death," she says. "We’re trying to sell the humanity angle.”

The 9/11 Museum Gift Shop

Curiously, much of the inventory at the 9/11 Museum gift shop is the same 9/11 tribute material we've seen over the past 13 years. Whether it's I Love NY shirts, FDNY hats, or NYPD hoodies, these goods have become part of the cultural rhetoric around September 11. The difference today might be that, with the museum's opening, the wounds of this tragedy have been opened anew. And unlike most museums and memorials, the 9/11 gift shop has been placed precisely where the tragedy happened. A store has been built atop a mass grave.

The museum needs to fine-tune its selection, but memorials come with a basic human desire for keepsakes. It's up to the museum to curate and fulfill that--and to make changes as needed. As Joe Daniels, president of the memorial foundation, said earlier this week: "Once the public starts coming in, you learn so much."

* An earlier version of this story claimed espresso had eventually been removed from sale entirely. In reality, it's still on sale today.

[Image: JEFF GOLDBERG/ESTO]

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • No one here has been to the House of Terror Museum in Budapest, Hungary? 6 floors of how the Nazis terrorized the Hungarians during WWII, and then how the Soviets terrorized the poor Hungarians from 1945 to 1989. Museums of terror of nothing new, guys.

  • The most bizarre gift shop is, in my opinion, the one in the Capuchins Museum in Rome.

    First, you go through several rooms and displays telling you that the Friars lived a very simple life, with no material possessions and very little money. Then, you roam through room after room decorated with skulls and other human bones, designed as places of prayer and contemplation, and reminding you that when you die you take no material possessions with you. Finally, alas, you reach the gift shop where you can buy all sorts of trinkets, including jewellery decorated with skulls. Talk about cognitive dissonance!!

  • As a president, you’ll wear a variety of hats, including Gift shop, Museum gift shop and Floor Museum. Occasionally, you might even dabble in social outreach.

  • As a president, you’ll wear a variety of hats, including Gift shop, Museum gift shop and Floor Museum. Occasionally, you might even dabble in social outreach.

  • As a president, you’ll wear a variety of hats, including Gift shop, Museum gift shop and Floor Museum. Occasionally, you might even dabble in social outreach.

  • As a president, you’ll wear a variety of hats, including Gift shop, Museum gift shop and Floor Museum. Occasionally, you might even dabble in social outreach.