When you go to a baseball stadium or a national park, you expect to find a gift shop where you can buy the usual fare of souvenir key chains, sweatshirts and coffee mugs. You might not expect to find similar trinkets for sale at the memorial of a mass murder.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened to the public this week in New York, and with the crowds comes the controversy. Selling souvenirs at the memorial is prompting complex reactions, with some people complaining that a gift shop at such a hallowed site is in poor taste.
Visiting memorials means something different for everyone, says Kenneth Foote, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies public memory and commemoration.
"Some come to honor the dead. Some try to relate to the experience," Foote says. "Souvenirs are one way that people connect to these events, this idea of a reminder."
Plus, there's the money. The 9/11 Memorial, a non-profit organization, does not receive federal, state or city funding, and 60 to 70 percent of its budget comes from tickets, online sales and the gift shop, says the memorial's communications manager, Anthony Guido.
America has a complicated relationship with commercialism, but only a fairly new history of commemorating mass murders together as a nation, particularly ones perpetrated by domestic citizens, like shootings or bombings.
Twenty or so years ago, these domestic tragedies were seen as shameful, says Jordan Hill, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech who studies the way we memorialize mass murders. We wanted to forget that it happened, move on. "Now, it's never forget," Hill says.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, President Clinton helped change the course of how we view these events. As Hill describes it, Clinton said that instead of looking at the bombing as a terrible tragedy, we should always remember how we came together as a country in its aftermath, how the bombing brought us together as Americans.
You likely remember hearing that sentiment echoed after the twin towers came down, a reminder of how we were a country unified in the wake of such an attack.
"This has become the normative way of talking about 'Never Forget,' in all mass murders," Hill says.
And having a gift shop at a memorial is nothing new, says Hill, who has traveled to memorial museums around the country as part of his research. It's part of what we do as a culture, we consume. "This is the new way that we consume being American," Hill says. We commemorate. We buy keepsakes.
As for the 9/11 Memorial, Guido estimates that 4,100 people from the 9/11 community — including rescuers, survivors and the residents — who visited during the dedication ceremony bought keepsakes.
So while some people may feel uncomfortable buying a plush rescue dog in a space where people perished horrifically, for others, it's a way to process a national tragedy.
"To have an Oklahoma City or 9/11 snow globe in your house is to say that, 'I have been to a place of national importance," Hill says. "And as a result, I am more connected to my country.' "