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9/11 Museum responds to criticism over gift shop items, donor reception

Emotions about the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum have been understandably mixed. On the one hand, 9/11 was a pivotal moment in U.S. history and, as such, deserves a fixed space where future generations can learn about the tragedy. On the other hand, this was an event that took place less than 13 years ago; the ramifications, both politically and personally, are still being felt. A museum dedicated to a catastrophe that’s still so fresh in our minds could be perceived as hurried at best, exploitative at worst.

The 9/11 Museum has removed items from its gift shop that many found insensitive.
The 9/11 Museum has removed items from its gift shop that many found insensitive. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Adding to that latter sentiment is the gift shop where visitors can buy souvenirs and memorabilia. Now, after facing heavy criticism for some of the items the store sells, the Wall Street Journal reports that the museum will “enlist more help in vetting products from the 9/11 family members who sit on the foundation's board.”

Because the museum does not receive any government funding to offset it’s annual operating budget of $63 million, the shop is necessary to help support the museum’s operations, says the memorial foundation’s president, Joe Daniels. He also notes that many visitors would like to take home a keepsake to remember their visit to the museum.

Still, browsing through the items available at the museum store feels more than a little exploitive, even if the “all net proceeds...are dedicated to developing and sustaining” the Memorial and Museum. When jewelry is pitched as being “inspired by the blossoms of the Survivor Tree” and t-shirts that read “I [heart] New York” are identified as “officially licensed,” it’s easy to feel that the tragedy that cost 3,000 people their lives has been reduced to a cheap commodity.

One item has already been removed from the gift shop for being insensitive. “A decorative ceramic platter in the shape of the U.S., with heart symbols marking the spots where the hijacked planes made impact on 9/11,” was no longer on sale as of Tuesday, according to the WSJ.

"Once the public starts coming in, you learn so much," Daniels told the Journal in regard to the controversial platter. "We in no way presume to get everything right. We will accept that criticism, absolutely."

One criticism that did seem to bother Daniels -- whose salary is nearly $400,000 a year, according to the New York Post -- was a controversial May 20 reception that Daniels claimed was “mischaracterized” as a VIP “soiree” for New York’s elite. Instead, he told the Journal it was a subdued affair for donors who made the museum possible, and that alcohol was not served near the exhibitions.

These points of contention illustrate the raw emotions dredged up by that traumatic day. This outstanding piece by Buzzfeed’s Steve Kandell details his difficult visit to the museum after losing his sister in the terrorist attacks, while others have praised the museum as “an impressive monument” to the events of Sept. 11. There will always be differing opinions about the museum, but the heavily charged reactions will hopefully send a lasting message to Daniels and the others responsible for the museum's stewardship that when it comes to matters of tact and suitability, its best to err on the side of caution.

"This is a good reminder that as much 'success' as we've had…we have to remember that the sensitivity around 9/11 is so high,” Daniels told the Wall Street Journal.