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.