Art Market

Who Decides What You Buy in Museum Gift Shops

Karen Chernick
Nov 24, 2017 9:00PM

Photo of the New Museum gift shop. Courtesy of the Museum Store Association.

Most museum objects were commodities at one point—a fact that’s easy to forget, since their (often hefty) price tags have since been replaced with reverent wall labels. Of course, these works are no longer for sale. But there is still one place where museum-goers can nourish their appetites to touch and own things of beauty: the gift shop.

Exiting through the gift shop has become an expected (and, for many, unmissable) part of the museum experience. Dr. Sharon Macdonald, a professor of cultural anthropology and the director of the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage in Berlin, even refers to it as “the grand finale, the final exhibit of the show.”

Yes, things like Vincent van Gogh socks and giant stuffed soup cans à la Andy Warhol are hard to ignore. But this blockbuster “final exhibit” is successful for several reasons: Museums anoint objects as culturally and historically significant, encouraging visitors to collect them; the curated selection of merchandise at museum stores differentiates them from other retailers; and proceeds go back to supporting the affiliated museum’s cultural preservation work, making bona fide art patrons out of postcard-buyers.

A 2009 financial survey conducted by Marketing General Incorporated reported that some museum stores net as much as $8.3 million in annual sales (with the average hovering somewhere around $654,000). But the museum retail industry’s beginnings were humble. By and large, the first wave of museum shops dates back to the late 1800s, when visitors could occasionally find a box kept under the information desk with cheap reproductions. In rarer cases, there might even be a small sales counter with some custom items.

The Met Store’s Great Hall location, photographed in 1921. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


A few earlier examples did exist, though. In Philadelphia, a museum dedicated to colonial American portraitist Charles Willson Peale sold souvenir silhouette portraits beginning in 1802. Created onsite by Moses Williams, an African-American artist who had once been a slave of Peale’s, the eight-cent silhouettes were purchased by roughly 80 percent of visitors over a period of several years.

The founders of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—many of them businessmen and financiers—began their forays into reproduction retail almost immediately after establishing the institution in 1870. According to Morgan Pearce, manager of marketing and communications at the Met, one of the Met Store’s earliest projects centered on a major 1871 acquisition of Old Master paintings. The trustees commissioned Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart to create etchings of 10 of these works, then proceeded to display the copies in the same gallery as the originals. Marketing tactics have since grown more subtle, but in this case the message was clear: Visitors could hang museum-level objects in their own homes, and at a fraction of the cost.

The highly curated, labyrinthine museum shops that we know today didn’t become commonplace until the early 1980s, say Macdonald and the Museum Store Association—a nonprofit international organization founded in 1955 to support the success of what they refer to as “cultural commerce.” That’s when shopping began to prevail as a leisure activity. Together with the rise of blockbuster museum shows (epitomized by a King Tut exhibition that traveled to six U.S. cities between 1976 and 1979), these developments fostered the demand for more sophisticated retail experiences.

And the allure of the museum gift shop has always been strong. “Museums can be seen as presenting us with an officially sanctioned account of the importance of objects,” Macdonald wrote in a 2012 essay on museum studies. “They tell us that objects matter, that they can be the stuff of important narratives about ourselves and others.”

Buyers at the Museum Store Association Annual Expo. Courtesy of the Museum Store Association.

Objects sold in museum stores, usually related to artwork on view, allow visitors to own part of a pedigreed collection. Often, this custom-made merchandise transforms the purely decorative into something practical, giving buyers permission to splurge because the object kills two birds with one stone—or with one umbrella, as is the case with a piece of Robert Rauschenberg-themed rain gear soon to be on sale at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Each of the umbrella’s eight panels feature a slice of the artist’s work Port of Entry [Anagram (A Pun)] (1998), part of the museum’s collection.

What the SFMOMA refers to as “curated keepsakes”—items inspired by the artistic ambiance of the museum, but only loosely tied to objects in its collection—also dominate museum stores, giving the selection a boutique feel. These are often commissioned directly from local craftspeople by members of the museum store’s buying team, who find it easier to tailor merchandise to their specifications when working with an individual rather than a big manufacturer. “We focus on local designers that may not be sold at other museums,” explains Jana Machin, director of the SFMOMA museum stores, “as our visitors often like to buy something local.”

Such keepsakes include items such as slip-on Vans sneakers hand-painted by local artist Joan Ganon at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s store (up to $395 and non-returnable), matching Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stuffed Christmas tree ornaments sold by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (£12 each), and a Spring Flowers cross stitch kit exclusively produced for the Norman Rockwell Museum that illustrates his eponymous 1969 still life painting ($26.95).

Attempts are also made to offer unique items at a range of price points. At the Met Store, says Pearce, jewelry and scarves are the top sellers at all 16 locations, from Fifth Avenue to Australia. But paper goods, significantly less expensive, come in second.

Robert Rauschenberg, Port of Entry Umbrella. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Rauschenberg Collection Tote. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

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.”

Karen Chernick