Thursday, June 12, 2014

Memento Mori

I will be the first to admit that one of the best things about museum-going is going to the museum shop. Some museum shops are so alluring that, on occasion, I’ve been tempted to bypass the museum entirely and just get to the goodies. It’s not that I ever end up buying all that much in a museum shop. I just like looking at how the museum manages to commercialize their collections.

Probably the strangest – and, admittedly, least tasteful  - item I ever bought in a museum shop was at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a JFK museum located in the old Texas Book Depository building, from whence Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. It was a pen with a photo of Jackie in the (in)famous pink boucle suit and pillbox hat, mercifully taken before her JFK Tiehusband shot, so not yet bloodstained. Nonetheless, it was supremely tasteless, so supremely tasteless that it may no longer be available. (I checked the online store and it’s not there.  Which is not to say that it isn’t in the store itself. If this tie is any indication, they sure don’t have a problem with tacky.)

Anyway, in my experience, historical museums tend to have more kitsch on sale than, say, hoity-toity art museums, where stuff just seems to be more elegant and brainy.

Not all historic museum shops are full of kitsch, of course. There was a shop at Auschwitz, and I’m pretty sure I stuck my head in just to make sure there were no “My grandparents went to Auschwitz and all they got me is this tee-shirt” goods on sale. I think it was mostly books, and maybe some pictures – of what, I’m blanking on. But I’m pretty sure there were no snow-globes, baseball caps, or pens depicting prisons in striped suits. Fast forward another hundred years or so, and nothing would surprise me.

The museum shop that’s creating the furor of late is the one at the just opened National September 11 Memorial Museum.

The shop, of course, is just one of the many things that people – most appear to be family members of victims  - are complaining about. Some don’t like that the unidentified remains will be housed (note: not displayed) at the site. Some are angry that a fancy-dancy reception was held at the museum. Some are ticked off that there’s an nice café going up there.

Okay, so all museums don’t have remains on prem, but the complainers need to keep in mind that the lifeblood of any museum is not general admissions, it’s donations. And hosting receptions, running a café, and, yes, having a shop where visitors can buy souvenirs.

As museum shops go, I didn’t find the 9/11 memorial too chocked with ultra-tacky, ultra-tasteless wares. I might raise an eyebrow at the twin towers Christmas ornament. And Rescue labthose guardian angel tchotchkes honoring first responders aren’t my cup of tea. And the stuffed search and rescue dogs, while definitely cutie-pie, may be a tad too cutie pie. (Awww…..)

But most of the stuff seemed pretty bland – mugs, lanyards, key chains with subdued images on them. And plenty of the run of the mill NYPD/NYFD that you see all over the place.

There was one item, however, that so many took umbrage with that it was immediately taken off the shelves. 911museum - cheese platterAnd that was a commemorative ceramic platter with markers at NYC, the Pentagon, and the place in Pennsylvania where United 93 crashed. I believe those markers are hearts. Pretty tacky, but it could have been worse. Those markers could have been little airplanes. Or it could have been billed as a pastry board – “Let’s roll!”

Still, it’s pretty bad. But I don’t imagine that the store would have sold all that many of them. If nothing else, what tourist wants to lug this home? I’ll take a couple of the lanyards, please.

Eliminating the cheesy cheeseboard from the stock items does raise the question of where the remainders – note that’s remainders, not remains – go.

Does the manufacturer take them back, yank out the hearts, and turn it into a just plain vanilla, good old US of A platter? Can’t be easy taking off the hearts without leaving a scar… Or do they end up in third world countries, alongside the tee-shirts touting the losing team in the latest Super Bowl as the winner?

The museum (and its shop) are taking the pushback seriously:

Responding to criticism of the gift shop since the museum's dedication earlier this month, Joe Daniels, president of the memorial foundation, said Wednesday in an interview that the museum would enlist more help in vetting products from the 9/11 family members who sit on the foundation's board.

Merchandise reviews, he said, will now take place in the museum store itself, allowing the vetters to see the items in the context of what many regard as a sacred space.  (Source: WSJ Online)

Well, that’s good. As it is a sacred space, especially, I’m certain to those who lost a loved one on 9/11.

Last fall, before the museum was completed, but when the memorial itself was open, my husband and I visited the site, on what turned out to be our last trip to NYC. We didn’t spend a lot of time there – it was crowded, it was hot, Jim was in the midst of chemo, and, in truth, it wasn’t Jim’s “thing” to begin with – crowd, heat, and chemo aside. But it was very lovely, and it was very moving.

And to keep it so, the museum shop will need to keep selling “stuff”. That’s just a fact of museum life.

Nice to have the family members on the foundation’s board help vet the items that get sold, but nothing is going to be to everyone’s liking.

As for that ceramic platter, I would have let the market do the talking. Seriously, was anyone actually going to buy these things?

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