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.

On “challenging” your audience

. . .but we should be challenging visitors, not just giving them what they want. . .

Work in evaluation and visitor research for long enough and you’re bound to hear someone say this. And from the point of view of an evaluator, it’s frustrating for a few reasons:

  • It betrays an assumption that conducting evaluation somehow means you’re going to ‘dumb down’ or otherwise pander to the masses. Evaluation shouldn’t fundamentally alter your mission, it should just give you clues as to where your stepping-off point should be.
  • It can be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo and not thinking critically about how well current practices are working for audiences. Are we genuinely challenging audiences. . . or just confusing them?
  • It tends to conflate knowledge with intelligence. If you (and many people you work with) are an expert on a given topic, it’s easy to overestimate how much “everybody” knows about that subject. If there is a big gap between how much you assume visitors know and what they actually know, no amount of intelligence on the visitors’ part will be able to bridge that gap.
  • A challenge is only a challenge when someone accepts it. In a free-choice setting like a museum, who is accepting the challenge and on whose terms? If the ‘challenge’ we set our audiences is rejected, does that leave us worse off than where we started?

This post on the Uncatalogued Museum neatly sums how visitors can be up for a challenge – often more so than we think – if we find the right balance between meeting visitors where they are and extending them to new horizons. But finding this balance depends on actually getting out there and talking to people, not resting solely on assumptions and expert knowledge.

If the goal is genuinely to challenge visitors, then visitors need to be part of the conversation. If we’re not asking them, what are we afraid of?


What do museum visitors think ‘science’ is?

The word “science” has its roots in the Latin for ‘knowledge’, and historically it has been used to describe any systematic body of knowledge. In common parlance, however, it tends to pertain to a particular approach to studying physical / natural phenomena, based on testable hypotheses, systematic gathering of evidence and conducing experiments.

So what do visitors to Natural History museums think “science” is? How do these beliefs influence how relevant they see science to their everyday lives? Do they see the connection between science and the work that Natural History museums do?

Museum visitors agree: this is definitely a scientist.

These were the guiding questions for a qualitative study conducted by Jennifer DeWitt and Emma Pegram at the Natural History Museum in London, as reported in the most recent issue of Visitor Studies. They interviewed 20 family groups in different parts of the museum, asking them questions about what they found interesting in the museum, whether they thought the museum was a ‘sciencey’ place or not, and whether they participated in science activities in their daily lives.

Visitors were split as to whether they thought the museum staff they interacted with were ‘sciencey’ or not. Staff were considered ‘sciencey’ when they demonstrated subject-specific knowledge, but facilitating enquiry in others was not necessarily a ‘sciencey’ thing for staff to do (visitors drew a distinction between ‘science’ and ‘education’ in this sense). Families more commonly described the activities they took part in at the museum as ‘sciencey’ – hallmarks of ‘sciencey’ activities were the use of technical equipment such as microscopes, detailed observation and specialist terminology. However, there was also evidence that activities that were accessible or friendly were considered not ‘sciencey’ for that reason.

Are these people scientists? Natural history museum visitors are not sure.

When it came to the Museum itself, visitors were equivocal as to whether it was a ‘science place’, having different views regarding whether particular types of content, exhibits or activities constituted ‘science’. Again a perceived conflict between ‘science’ and ‘education’ came up. And interestingly, some visitors did not consider natural history to constitute science*.

Perceptions of whether the museum was a science place or not were informed by each family’s prior conceptions of science. While 19 of the 20 families had at least one member who claimed to be interested in science, only a minority of families considered themselves ‘sciencey’. Further probing often revealed that families often did participate in science related activities (e.g. rock collecting) but such activities did not fall within the relatively narrow conception of ‘science’ that most participants had. “Science” conjured up the notion of “facts” or expert knowledge that was not particularly accessible. It was more readily associated with the physical sciences and technology than with nature.

Admittedly this study is based on a small sample, but it points to some interesting preconceptions about what science is, as well as a potential disconnect between how Natural History museums see themselves, and how they are viewed by their audiences.

*The authors concede that in their particular case, being adjacent to the Science Museum may reinforce the perception of the Natural History Museum being something other than science.