Wi-Fi, Latte, and Amnesia at the Grassy Knoll Cafe


There was a time when everyone who could remember November 22, 1963 felt a cold, creepy feeling at the mention of the Texas School Book Depository.  It was from its sixth story corner window– so the official narrative related– from a “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes littered with the remains of a fried chicken lunch that Lee Harvey Oswald trained his rifle on the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy rode.   

Over the years, conspiracy theories and conspiracy experts about the JFK assassination flourished.  They flourished despite of– or because of– the official verdict of the Warren Commission, eight dour establishment figures who failed to calm the nation at a very anti-establishment time.  But whether one accepted the narrative of the deranged (?), radical (?), or soviet programmed (?) lone assassin, or whether one clung to the idea of a vast mafia, CIA, or industrial-military conspiracy, The Texas School Book Depository and its surroundings in Dealy Plaza became names to conjure with.  The “Grassy Knoll,” “the Railroad Bridge,” and the “Stockade Fence,” where shadowy figures that may or may not have been accomplices or additional gunmen were reported to have lurked, became an enchanted mythic landscape.  

It is indeed Hallowed Ground for our collective national experience.  It is and has been since 1963 the focus of fascination, not about what kind of monument should be erected there or what political or religious group should not be allowed to be there– but about the enormity of the event and what difference it made to the country, whatever one happened to believe that might be.   And while today the debate rages about the siting of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, it might be useful to toss away that red herring for a moment and consider what kind of memorial commemoration we will likely see where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.  

In the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the worldwide transformation of historical sites and museums into leisure time venues– that are (functionally speaking) part multimedia entertainment attractions and part themed shopping opportunities.  I have blogged here the debate over the propriety of a casino at Gettysburg; about the marketing of Cold War kitsch in Berlin; and about the slash-and-burn urban renewal underway in Luxor.  I could even mention– and may do so at greater length one of these days– the role of Auschwitz in Poland package sightseeing tours.  All of these are somehow motivated by economic factors– jobs, tourists, merchandise, extra hotel nights per capita– for in an age of ever-decreasing public budgets for culture and its frequent outsourcing to heritage management companies, no museum or site executive worth their salt (on either hallowed or unhallowed ground) would dare to neglect the economic aspect of its own sustainability.  

It has certainly happened in Dealy Plaza where the permanent exhibitions (sponsored by American Airlines) have transformed an abandoned building with a grotesque history into a multimedia, experiential tourist attraction, complete with interactive screens, slick graphics, and a meticulous reconstruction of the “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes, protected from the tourists by a wall of thick plexiglas.   

As a sightseeing attraction for visitors to Dallas, it’s so neatly arranged and unthreatening (but surely a bit enjoyably creepy like Madam Tussaud’s or Alcatraz Island) that one wonders what happens to the memories.  

That’s why the following article from Dallas got me thinking not about the “Mosque at Ground Zero” but about the kind of memorial we are likely to have as the years roll on from September 11, 2001.  For despite the Fox News/Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck babble about honoring this site of American tragedy and resolve, we have gotten to the point where our forms of historical commemoration are so naturally meant to be economically self-sufficient– and their forms so uniformly designed for that purpose– that hallowed ground has all too often become just an another opportunity to direct traffic flow to the cafe and the gift shop– and turn visitors into consumers of souvenirs, snacks, and hot drinks.  I’m not sure that the new forms of edu-tainment and stylishly marketed refreshments necessarily encourage serious reflection.  Will the visitors remember anything except the visit itself?  

The carefully reconstructed "sniper's nest." Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


 If it has happened at Dealy Plaza, it can happen at Ground Zero, with or without a “mosque.”  Musealized commemoration has become a technique for attracting paying crowds and keeping them occupied.  It’s also about selling a decontextualized vision of the past along with the themed merchandise.  Just follow the inescapable logic that site managers are now trapped in– and see if you agree that the kind of modern museum infrastructure that will likely furnish the future Ground Zero Visitor Center really makes visitors “feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door.”  

From AOL News – July 22  

JFK Assassination Museum Beckons With Lattes, Wi-Fi

by Linda Jones  

…With 325,000 visitors annually, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is the most popular tourist attraction in Dallas, yet it’s often overlooked by locals. Less than a third of its visitors, in fact, are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  

Now, officials are seeking to remedy the landmark’s relative obscurity among natives by luring them with a new store and coffee shop right across the street.  

Opened on July 1, the Museum Store and Cafe represents a “strategic opportunity” to increase the visibility of the historic site, said Liza Denton, director of public relations.  

“We believed this corner location, with commanding views of Dealey Plaza, would increase visitors’ overall engagement to the museum and historic site,” she said, “as well as attract those who live and work downtown.”  

Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, as his presidential motorcade traveled past the former Texas School Book Depository Building, which is now owned and operated by the Dallas County Historical Foundation, a private nonprofit. The museum is housed on the building’s two upper floors.  

Across the street, the new store and cafe — outfitted with contemporary, loftlike decor — is already receiving a steady stream of traffic and positive responses from the local community, with many residents paying return visits, Denton said.  

The cafe at the Museum Store and Cafe, across the street from the Sixth Floor Museum, a repository of documents and artifacts from the Kennedy era, at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, offers coffee, snacks and Wi-Fi. Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


Like the shop inside the museum itself, the store here is stocked with 1960s-themed merchandise, such as reproductions of Jacqueline Kennedy’s three-strand pearl necklaces, as well as books and souvenirs. It also has a variety of items from local artisans that make statements about Dallas today, including jewelry and handbags.  

Visitors can refuel with gourmet coffee, sandwiches and pastries at the cafe, which also aims to lure local workers with pre-ordered boxed lunches. Organizers hope that the cafe’s free Wi-Fi will further draw in residents, and that the large wall screen showing continuous Kennedy film footage and photos will compel locals and visitors alike to settle in for a while.  

“We want our guests to feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door,” Denton said.  

For complete article, click here.

3 thoughts on “Wi-Fi, Latte, and Amnesia at the Grassy Knoll Cafe

  1. Absolutely right. But in my experience, once the question of location and design phase is over– and when the project professionals take over– the public debate ends. The memorial/museum/site becomes a fact of nature and an expensive-to-maintain tourist attraction. The strategies for institutional survival then begin subtly to shift the expertience to safe family entertainment, rather than raw-edged memory. Natural maybe, but I think the public debate is all too often left behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s