Exit through the gift shop

These days it’s more or less a given that a museum will have a gift shop of some description. There’s a body of literature around museum retail (here is a good example). Museum shops vary greatly in quality and tone. Some clearly put a lot of effort into their retail offer, and the larger museums tend to have excellent shops that are great for souvenir shopping (you can even shop online). Others appear to be doing it as a tick-the-boxes exercise or as an afterthought.

Generally speaking, debates about the museum shop revolve around:

  • Location: should visitor flow be routed through the gift shop such that avoiding it is difficult, if not impossible?
  • Integration: research suggests that visitors see the shop as part of the museum experience as a whole, not as a separate entity. Should this be embraced to make retail a more holistic part of the visitor experience, and if so, how?
  • Merchandise: how closely should items stock represent the museum’s “brand” in terms of quality, content and provenance? It’s easy to stock piles of generic souvenir fodder, and it probably moves quickly. But does it enhance or detract from the rest of the museum experience?

However, the very idea that a museum should have a shop is seldom brought into question. That is, until a few days ago, when the 9/11 Museum opened (complete with shop) at Ground Zero in New York. The New York Post called it “absurd“, and families are reportedly infuriated by the “crass commercialism” such a shop embodies. Of course, the shop is not the only controversy surrounding the museum, and it’s not surprising that Ground Zero is such a contested site. But that’s a bigger subject; one for another day and another post.

I’m interested in exploring reactions to the shop in particular. The juxtaposition of a site of great and recent tragedy with a place you can pick up commemorative trinkets does trigger a bit of a visceral “yuck” factor. But then again, other sites with gift/souvenir shops include the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum in DC (just to cite a few US examples). The main difference seems to be the recency of events being commemorated at Ground Zero (and as I’ve argued before, recent events can be ‘too hot to handle‘).

The museum itself argues that merchandise has been “carefully selected”, and that proceeds help support this non-profit organisation (and presumably there’s market demand for these souvenirs and keepsakes). Others have said that this just underscores how commercialism has permeated every aspect of American society.

I’m still working through what I think of this, and trying not to reach judgement one way or another too quickly. As a foreigner, I’m aware that it’s not really for me to judge what is or isn’t an appropriate way for Americans to remember and commemorate their own heritage. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

UPDATE: This piece elegantly and powerfully describes the difficult, sometimes darkly comical experience of having a private tragedy turned into public memorial, complete with souvenirs. There are so many bits I could pull out and quote. Better yet just read it.

Acknowledgement: In case it’s not obvious, the title of this post is a reference to the 2010 Banksy movie of the same name.

4 Replies to “Exit through the gift shop”

  1. I think in a world desensitized to turmoil and disaster were the media bombards us with relentless biased opinion that are designed to sway the public consciences to a singularity that increases their ratings is going to create a ownership culture.

    We will begin to view events (9-11) as a milestone in our own lives, it becomes a wow moment that we witnessed and therefor is something to repeat or boast about. “I watch it live on TV, I saw the plane hit the building.”

    The individual human factor has mostly been removed so the event/attack as a whole is now an annual event for the world to be angry and scared again. Every Christmas there will be “the miracle on 42nd street” every 9/11 we will have “the flight that fought back.”
    So the gift shop gives everyone the ability to personally own a piece of what happened to the world in that day no matter how tacky. They have cashed in on what has been a beautifully choreographed dance of media and political doctoring.

    One day they will be selling little model armed droned aircraft that has kept us safe from future attack in the gift shop, but not mention a single innocent life lost.

  2. Hi Regan

    Stumbled on your very informative website while looking for some statistics with which to build a basic business plan urgently. I am stuck and looking for any data/numbers on museum stores in Europe / US / world.

    Where does such data live (as simple as number of museums/museum stores per country or as sophisticated as visitors or turnover per store)?
    Any help MUCH appreciated!

    1. Hi there,

      Back in the days when I was doing feasibility studies, we used to apply certain rules-of-thumb for forecasting “secondary spend” (i.e. purchases besides ticket sales in the shop, cafe, etc.). This was usually an average applied per projected visitor. I can’t recall the parameters of how we calculated it now, but I think it usually turned out to be in the order of $1-2 per visitor (on the premise that some spend much more than that, but many spend nothing at all). So if you were designing a facility with 100,000 visitors per year, that translated to secondary spend turnover in the region of $100,000-200,000 per annum (assuming I’ve remember the figures correctly – this was over a decade ago now!) But there are factors that will affect secondary spend, such as whether there is a ticket price, how long people are anticipated to spend in the museum, what other facilities are nearby, etc. I’m not sure how many published figures are out there.

      Note that if you’re doing an internet search on “museum stores”, then you’ll come unstuck when it comes to the UK at least. In the UK, a “museum store” is a collections storage facility, not a shop. “Store” is the US terminology. Good luck!

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