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.


Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

5 responses to “The pitfalls of the gift shop

  1. Joe

    I do recall that Lincoln was no Southern Democrat. Incidentally, I am working through Shelby Foote’s masterful 3 volume Civil War set. Interesting to learn about those little skirmishes in Virginia.

    Joe Cox

  2. mlynchhistory

    Shelby Foote’s trilogy is one of those books I’ve always meant to read, but I’ll probably be in a retirement home before I get the chance to. I did read his novel about Shiloh, which was pretty good.

    So how’s life at the bar? I just left the museum world to teach college.


  3. Joe

    The legal world is still more or less legal. As with pretty much any other job, the amount of BS busy-work is mind numbing, but hey, it’s not the coal mines or anything.

    College sounds fun to me. I keep meaning to check in with some of my old professors and see if I can work in a class somehow somewhere around here.

    Foote’s books are wonderful. Unfortunately, it’s not very quick reading. I’ve been working on the first of the three volumes for almost a month and I’m about halfway through. I bought the first volume to see if I liked it, and within 100 pages, I went ahead and bought the other two. So I may also be in an old folks home before I finish… but it is really good stuff. Do you remember the title of the novel about Shiloh? Could it be just “Shiloh”? I’ll probably try to seek that one out when/if I ever finish this initial small burst of 2,400 pages.


  4. mlynchhistory

    Foote’s Shiloh novel is just plain “Shiloh.” It’s pretty short. It’s not plotted in a linear manner; each chapter is from the perspective of a different soldier. I didn’t like it as much as “The Killer Angels,” but it’s still pretty darn good.


  5. Pingback: Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops | Past in the Present

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