9/11 memorial museum: Are swank parties, trinkets fitting at ground zero?

At $700 million to build and $60 million a year to run, the new 9/11 museum is the most expensive in America. Critics say that doesn't justify the $24 entrance fee, the $39 souvenir 'Darkness Hoodie,' or parties for donors.

Nearly 13 years after the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the National September 11 Museum opened to the public Wednesday to mostly stunned reactions and a quiet reverence for those who perished that day.

As its architects have said, while most museums house the artifacts of memory, “we are a museum that sits within an artifact,” a cavernous space that reaches seven stories beneath the footprints of the missing Twin Towers. It is a site where thousands died in a few seconds witnessed by millions around the globe, and where thousands of slivers of unidentified remains are still entombed. (There are still 1,115 victims who have not been identified – or 41 percent of the 2,753 people reported missing in New York that day.)

But a day after its public opening, the somber site many see as “sacred ground" has run headlong into the stark realities of raising funds to run it. The on-site gift shop, as well as plans for a new 80-seat restaurant overlooking the artifacts from that day, has evoked an outcry from family members and a host of outraged critics, including Anne Kingston at MacLean’s, who called it a crass kind of “catharsis consumerism” unsuitable for such a site.

Especially outrageous, many say, was a black-tie, glitterati event held Tuesday evening for about 60 of the museum’s wealthy patrons. The soiree, hosted by Conde Nast and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, included cocktails, crabcakes, and shrimp hors d'oeuvres at the VIP event, which the New York Daily news decried as a “festive” and “alcohol-fueled party” with drinking, eating, and laughter.

“I find it ghoulish and insane to have a party over the remains of the 9/11 dead like my sister,” said Kevin Burns, a Vietnam vet whose sister Peggy Conner died in the attacks, according to the Daily News. “The museum has a VIP list drinking wine. Meanwhile, my other sister, Pat Cuozzo, almost got arrested on the day the museum opened because she refused to pay admission to add a photo of my lost sister to the memorial wall. It’s a disgrace.”

According to reports, museum officials asked a group of firefighters to leave early as they closed the museum for the event, which the firefighters did in tears, and then turned away an NYPD officer who had come with his wife. The museum had been open 24/7 before its public opening so that family members and first responders could visit unhindered by the rush of crowds.

Museum spokesman Michael Frazier, however, said the event was just a “small gathering” rather than “festive,” and that it “was done respectfully and in recognition of our supporters who helped to build the memorial and museum,” adding that 9/11 family members were among the attendees.

Museum officials also unveiled plans for The Pavilion Cafe Wednesday, which will feature “New York-made draft beers and American wines on tap,” as well as mostly vegetarian “comfort foods” from local farms and vendors.

“[The] brains behind the museum apparently regard their cathartic masterpiece as just another cultural venue like MoMA or the Whitney,” wrote New York Post columnist Steve Cuozo, noting that the cafe’s owner also runs the venues at other famous Manhattan museums. “I can go for tomato soup and grilled cheese after staring at Picassos for a few hours. My appetite isn’t the same after a tour through hell.”

Last week, several family members protested the inclusion of human remains in a museum that would include such commercial venues, as well as the $24 entrance fee. Officials say the cafe will be run for profit by its private owners.

“To me, it’s the crassest, most insensitive thing to have a commercial enterprise at the place where my son died,” said Diane Horning to the Post, remembering her son Matthew, who was among those whose remains were never identified.

The clash of consumption with the sacred at the site has frayed emotions almost since the beginning. Many had also decried as crass the decision of then-President George W. Bush, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to encourage Americans to continue to consume as usual and to not let the terrorists win by slowing down the US economy.

“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,” said museum spokesman Mr. Frazier, in a statement. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which cost a total of $700 million to build, and will cost about $60 million to run each year – including $10 million a year for security – will be the most expensive memorial in the nation.

But some of the keepsakes have struck many as trite, offensive, and predictably overpriced tchotchkes. These include a $39 “Darkness Hoodie” with an image of the Twin Towers and the words “In Darkness We Shine Brightest” emblazoned on the front, $95 silk scarves printed with images of the Manhattan skyline or depicting “lunchtime on the WTC plaza,” as well as $39 heart-shaped rocks, stamped with slogans such as “United in Hope,” "Honor," or the quote from the ancient poet Virgil that marks where the museum holds the unidentified remains, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Many note that other museums commemorating tragedy sell similar trinkets to raise funds, including Arlington National Cemetery, the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.  

But critics contend that, unlike those memorials, the 9/11 museum is the actual space where thousands died and where unidentified remains are still entombed – which demands a significantly different kind of reverence.

“It's not right, selling dog raincoats to commercialize the deaths of 3,000 people,” wrote David Cutler, a guest columnist for a consortium of Cleveland news organizations. “When you're on sacred ground, where victims jumped to their deaths from the burning towers, the idea of someone buying a black and white 'Darkness Hoodie' for $39, at that very spot, seems vile.”

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