Daily Archives: August 6, 2008

The pitfalls of the gift shop

In a very insightful comment, a critic of the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center raised the issue of gift shops at museums and historic sites.  As an ex-museum person, I immediately thought this would be a great topic to explore more fully.  So, with a hat tip to the aforementioned commentator, I’ll jump right in.

A lot of Civil War aficionados are far less pleased than I am about the new exhibits at Gettysburg.  Luckily, I think we can all rally against gift shop kitsch. 

I’m no opponent of gift shops, mind you.  They help raise needed revenue for sites that are often woefully underfunded.  More importantly, they offer visitors (especially kids) a tangible link to the museum experience.  When it comes to return visits and memberships, that’s more important than you might think.  And, of course, gift shops can play a small educational role by providing books and documentaries in an atmosphere that arouses public interest.  One of my favorite things about visiting historic sites is the chance to browse the bookshelves.  For me, reading and re-reading these books sparks memories of experiencing the place itself, one of the subtler joys I’ve gotten out of life.

The problem comes when there’s no intellectual control over the gift shop merchandise.  The need for revenue isn’t a license to fill the shop with crap.  At best, it’s in poor taste.  Take the fake beards on sale at some Lincoln sites, for example.    (This photo from a costume website isn’t the same brand I saw in Springfield, but you get the idea.)  At worst, the items are sometimes downright inaccurate.  In my first museum job, some gift shop supplier sent us a sample of Lincoln items with tidbits of historical information printed on them.  One of them labeled Lincoln a “Southern Democrat,” which probably made the die-hard Whig and the White House’s first Republican spin in his concrete-encased tomb.

The moral here is that museum administrators should be wary of outsourcing their gift shops to retail managers, or of delegating the gift shop to a volunteer organization without maintaining some kind of control over what makes it to the shelves.  Gift shops should be treated as another opportunity to engage visitors, not as an appendage that exists only to help offset operating costs.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Legacies of the bomb

Normally my historical interests lie on the far side of 1865.  After that date, we start moving into the treacherous realm of recent memory.  But here’s a controversial issue that hits surprisingly close to home, at least in the literal, geographic sense.

Today, of course, is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Some of the uranium inside that bomb came from the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about ninety minutes’ drive from my hometown.  Good power sources, sparse settlement, and cheap labor drew the government to the site, along with a series of ridges and valleys to isolate and contain any accidents.

Today, Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex still manufactures bomb components, and holds more weapons-grade uranium than any site in the world.  This combination of past and present purpose results in some uproar every August.  Here’s an article from the Knoxville paper detailing this year’s protests and counter-protests.  I hasten to point out that I mention this neither to condmen nor laud what happened at Oak Ridge sixty years ago. 

The force unleashed in 1945 was awesome, but I am more awed by the past itself, a force that can instantly erase the present-day distance between the mountains of East Tennessee and the skies over Japan.

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Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History