If you were to predict which element of the National September 11 Memorial Museum might become a lightning rod for visitor discomfort and rage when the museum opened in New York, you might not have guessed "cheese plate." But there it was: a cheese platter in the shape of the continental United States with three hearts marking the spot where three planes went down on that terrible day in 2001. Crass, tacky, and of course cheesy, went the outcry – and the offending tray was removed from the museum's gift shop.
From Winnipeg, Tristin Tergesen was watching. She is the manager of retail branding and licensing for the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), which also deals with some difficult aspects of history. The 9/11 Memorial Museum's retail uproar resonated, although Tergesen noted that the two institutions are not exactly comparable.
"In the case of the 9/11 museum, it is a memorial museum and we're well aware that people will have strong emotional reactions not only to that, but to some of what they see here in our museum. But the difference for us is that the [Winnipeg] museum is built from darkness to light – that's the architectural theme and that's … the way people will experience the exhibit. So there's a strong message for hope," she said.
"I look at the boutique as something you visit at the end of that journey, and I'm really hoping that when people come they're looking for a way to make change in the world, and they're looking for a way to send that message of hope. … That's why I think it's going to be really important for me to find a product mix that is hopeful and looks toward a positive future," Tergesen said.
If there is a lesson for the CMHR – and other institutions – in the 9/11 Memorial Museum's cheese plate (and earrings and hoodies and cereal bowls) fiasco last spring, it is that when very sensitive subject matter is a museum's stock in trade, its gift shop needs to be very sensitive with its merchandise.
The gift shop is a financial fact of life. According to Statistics Canada, at not-for-profit heritage institutions in Canada such as museums and galleries, "other earned revenues" (beyond memberships and admissions) including the gift shop and facility rentals generated about 20 per cent of total operating revenues in 2009.
But peddling trivial items of questionable taste to museum-goers who have just emerged from an emotional immersion into a tragic event can be unsettling and, frankly, weird.
"I think they have to be very careful and very intentional about what they put in the gift store," said Irina Mihalache, an assistant professor with the museum studies program at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information. In a gift shop at a museum that deals with difficult subject matter, she said, trinkets should be balanced with a strong component of what she calls respectable objects, such as books and documentaries.
While a lot of thought goes into stocking a museum gift shop, it is not a curated experience, she said. "People who manage the gift shops are different than the people who curate exhibitions. So the expectations that the gift shop would reflect the same sensibilities as the museum itself are a bit far-fetched."
She also noted an interesting juxtaposition: Visitors might be uncomfortable with consumerism in the context of a serious museum visit, yet they have an expectation that they will be able to leave with a tangible memory of that visit.
"It's an attempt to make a connection, to bear witness. And in our society, one of the ways we do that is with a souvenir," said Cara Krmpotich, also an assistant professor with U of T's museum studies program. "It's not the same as buying a snow globe at Disney World. When people buy the snow globe, they're looking to remember the fun. When they buy the mug, they're looking to remember the historic moment. And they're looking to be a part of the witnessing."
Still, Krmpotich said she was "absolutely surprised" to see a gift shop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "The experience at the Holocaust museum is overwhelming on so many levels. I was surprised that there was a sense that people would then also need to take something home with them. But material culture is an extremely powerful thing to remember through. And if it is an everyday object, the likelihood for remembering is all that much greater." Hence the coffee mug, the key chain.
It can be an odd encounter after a sobering museum experience. After touring through the informative and thought-provoking Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with my family this summer, we were hit with a gift shop that offered maple syrup, camouflage gift bags, toy soldiers, poppy-themed ties and tea sets, and "Keep calm and carry on" V-neck tees. "What's with the Stars Wars theme?" one of the kids wondered, hearing the music from one of those multi-CD display kiosks.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario last year, Mihalache was taken aback by what she called the "obsessive presence" of panda merchandise during an exhibition of works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. "It's one of the symbols of China that we recognize. … It's a bit simplistic in terms of representing another culture. But again, it's a gift shop. We have to keep that in mind as well. It's in a museum but it's a gift shop so they sell a variety of objects that might not make sense."
By the time I got to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in July, the notorious cheese platter was long gone, and the store (which isn't one of those unavoidable "exit through the gift shop" experiences, but rather is tucked away off an escalator on your way out) was doing a brisk business. Customers lined up to buy 9/11 memorial smartphone cases, mugs declaring "I (heart) NY More Than Ever" and buttons paying tribute to the "dogs of 9/11."
At the CMHR boutique, which opens September 27th, visitors will find items such as messenger bags made by survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia, and a U.S. line of jewellery and accessories called From War to Peace which uses copper recycled from disarmed nuclear-weapons systems (they call it "peace bronze"). There is also standard gift-shop fare: maple syrup, travel mugs, fair-trade chocolate. Books make up about 20 per cent of the store's stock. A hoodie embroidered with the museum's icon was a hot seller at kiosks set up last weekend ahead of the boutique's official opening.
Tergesen wants to make sure visitors are provided with something they feel represents this new national museum appropriately. "I don't want to be a disappointment to anybody."