All items are carefully selected by the museum stores’ buying teams, who are divided into quasi-curatorial departments including books, jewelry, houseware, and children. They identify products after attending local trade shows, design fairs, or the annual Museum Store Association Conference & Expo (a three-day vendor-fest held annually in a rotating location). Some of the larger museums have their own in-house design studios, too.
But impossible-to-find-anywhere-else gifts are not the only reason people shop at museum stores. Most museum shops are nonprofit retailers whose proceeds directly support their museum’s collections, conservation, and public programming. At some institutions (particularly those with free or pay-what-you-wish admission), museum store sales are an important source of revenue comparable to ticket sales.
“When you’re shopping, you’re giving back to the museum,” explains Susan Tudor, the second vice president of the Museum Store Association Board of Directors and store buyer for the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. “It’s surprising that people don’t realize that, and we even put it on the receipts as many museums do.”
A new initiative this year, Museum Store Sunday, will designate the Sunday after Black Friday as a day to support museums by frequenting their gift shops. So far, around 600 museum stores across 10 countries and all 50 American states have signed on to participate—some by offering discounts or free gifts with a purchase, others through live music, book signings, and even cooking demonstrations.
“We’re working to give something back, we’re preserving culture and history and what we do here in our museums,” Tudor says. “So that’s pretty heady if you think of it in that way. Because, again, we’re providing those funds to keep the doors open—it’s being part of a bigger picture.”