Outraged Survivors Say 9/11 Museum Is More a Tourist Attraction Than a Memorial

Responders and families of the victims say the new museum at the World Trade Center site isn’t striking the right balance between commemoration and commercial interest.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the former location of the Twin Towers has been turned into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. (Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

May 20, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

When 9/11 responder John Feal visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City last week, ahead of its public opening this Wednesday, he never expected to see a gift shop packed with overpriced items such as stuffed animals, jewelry, and $95 silk scarves.

“The gift shop was uncalled for. I walked up to it and thought, ‘You have to be kidding me,’ ” he said. “Those who lost loved ones and were there don’t need a key chain.”

Feal has joined other responders and 9/11 victim’s family members in expressing displeasure. They are unhappy with the final result of the museum erected at Manhattan’s ground zero to pay homage to the nearly 3,000 people who died in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For survivors, the site is as personal as it is painful. It is filled with 580 hours of film and video footage, 1,995 oral histories, and more than 12,500 objects, including charred personal letters and a singed wallet. Seeing those artifacts of the deadliest terror attacks in recent U.S. history, survivors are upset the museum is exacting a toll on those who wish to pay their respects. They’ve voiced complaints over the hefty $24 adult admission fee, its pricey gift shop, and nearly 8,000 unidentified pieces of the remains being moved to a basement repository without the full consent of families.

“The families of the people I represent believe that the remains should not be in the museum 70 feet belowground but in an aboveground tomb at the 9/11 Memorial plaza, like the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery,” said attorney Norman Siegel, who represents almost two dozen 9/11 families. “The remains should be in a place of reverence, not a commercial venue.”

The museum’s interest in striking a balance between commercialism and commemoration is a continued source of friction for 9/11 families and survivors.

Museum officials have said that while 9/11 Memorial Plaza is free and the museum is always free to 9/11 family members, revenue is necessary to offset costs. The nonprofit museum, which also relies on private donations and fund-raising, has a $63 million annual budget and has received no other federal funding beyond an initial $250 million.

Comparatively, the federally and privately funded United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is free to all visitors.

Feal, whose left foot was partially amputated after being crushed by 8,000 pounds of falling steel at the Twin Towers site in the days following 9/11, said visiting the museum created mixed emotions, especially during the weeklong dedication period running up to the public opening.

Feal, the founder of the nonpartisan FealGood Foundation, which helps sick and financially destitute 9/11 responders, said that while he understood the need to raise money to maintain the museum and support staff salaries, he knew many responders on disability who would not be unable to afford the $24 entrance fee. He does consider the museum to be an elegant, beautifully cavernous space—with its huge waterfalls—but thinks it is too clean to really convey the sheer destruction, he said, and doesn’t include enough post-9/11 stories about survival and recovery.

Still, listening to audio of emergency calls and people tearfully phoning family and friends before their deaths had an immediate impact.

“If you have any ounce of compassion in your body, it was brought to the surface,” said Feal. “The 9/11 responders I went with are very serious people, but we also rib each other. We’ve used humor to mask our pain over the past 13 years. When we were there, we weren’t laughing. When we left, we walked a little slower. I didn’t cry, but there was water in my eyes. I’m reminded of 9/11 every day, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I came out of there appreciating what I have.”

While President Obama praised the museum last Thursday as “a sacred place of healing,” that sentiment doesn’t ring true for Sally Regenhard. Her firefighter son, Christian Regenhard, died during the World Trade Center attacks, along with his entire engine company. His body is still missing, and his mom, represented by attorney Siegel, has been vocal alongside other families about not visiting the museum and vehemently opposing any remains being housed deep underground.

“Why should I subject myself to this museum of death and destruction and gore?” Regenhard said. “They’re using my son’s remains as a tourist attraction and marketing tool. It’s a disgrace. We can’t grieve. We have so much anger. We have to continue to have justice and a decent entombment.”

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has been an adviser to 9/11 victims’ relatives such as Regenhard since 2009 because of his sensitive work with Native American human remains in museums.

He posed an ongoing ethical question: who has the right to decide how human remains are cared for? He believes that the 9/11 museum violated the basic right of giving families a choice and a voice in the disposition of their loved ones.

“They could conduct a simple survey; they could hold open conversations; they could invite families to help shape the decision about where the unidentified remains are to be held and whether they should be included as part of the paid museum experience,” he said. “Ultimately, the 9/11 museum can only make this right by openly inviting families to shape the place that for many families is not an educational center but a cemetery.”