It is difficult, for a number of good reasons, to wake up on any given day and resolve to visit the 9/11 Museum. That it is struggling to lure local visitors may not surprise you. A new Wall Street Journal piece details the museum’s attempts to cope: a new marketing campaign, advertising on the subway and on local television, creating before-and-after videos with NYC locals who were “coaxed into visiting,” surveying regular museum-goers in the tristate area about why they haven’t gone to this particular museum.
Their reasons are predictable: a third said they didn’t plan to visit because they “didn’t want to relive that day or because the subject matter was too emotional.” More than half said they intended to, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, which summed up a very relatable reaction—one can recognize the museum’s importance, even feel curious about its contents, and still struggle to get up and pay $24 for guaranteed emotional devastation in a public space. Still, though some critics have objected to the museum’s execution—some very convincingly—it’s obvious that the city needs some tribute at the site of a world-altering act of terrorism.
But even if it’s in the moral interest of a city to offer this sort of tribute, commercial interest lags well behind. For now, according to the museum’s president and chief executive, private donations help supply the 10% gap between what the museum brings in and what it costs to maintain—about $72 million a year in operating costs. The rest is covered by ticket sales, tours and memberships. While state and federal agencies supplied millions during the design and construction phases, the museum has now been open for two years and no longer enjoys government funding to cover its operating costs. (It does get discounted utility and security from the city and the Port Authority. A spokesman for NYC mayor Bill de Blasio told the WSJ that the city does not currently provide any funding but is in talks about “next steps.”)
As comparison, the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum takes no government funding and charges $15. The National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC is free for all visitors, and received $54 million this year in federal appropriations (per act of Congress) along with $42 million in investment income and private donations.
It’s worth asking what form our collective remembrance should take: a monument open to all? a ticketed museum? both, as with the World Trade Center? And then, even more confounding, who pays for that remembrance: tax payers? Do we trust a private entity to do the job, and benefactors and popular demand to keep it afloat? This museum’s struggle may be read as argument that this particular form of remembrance can’t be sustained when it asks so much—emotionally, and, as some have noted, financially—of its potential visitors. And because we (fortunately) lack recent precedents for a domestic tragedy of this scope and with such wide-ranging impact, this kind of mourning is relatively new terrain. When facing a tragedy on this scale, a museum this sophisticated may offer comfort to those most deeply affected and context to the naive visitor, but it’s unclear, unfortunately, whether those suffice to pay the bills.