Daily Archives: September 7, 2010

Little soldiers are a big deal

The Museum of the Confederacy’s online gift shop is selling a black Confederate toy soldier.  Kevin Levin pointed out that this is a problem, but some of his readers think he’s making out of a molehill.  Let me tell you why I’m with Kevin on this one.

Folks who have never worked in museums may be surprised to learn that there is a bustling wholesale industry focused on supplying gift shops in museums, historic sites, and zoos.  Museum gift shop managers receive unsolicited catalogs in the mail from companies that specialize in providing them with souvenirs to stock their shelves.  These publications usually aren’t specific to certain types of museums.  You’ll find every conceivable type of item that any sort of museum might carry—plastic sharks, Martha Washington dolls, dinosaur key chains, reproduction parchment documents, Mona Lisa magnets, Tutankhamun pencil sharpeners, you name it. 

Museums will also get calls, letters, e-mails, and solicitation visits from manufacturers and sales reps who want them to buy their materials for re-sale in the gift shop.  Some of this stuff is educational, some of it’s innocuous, and some of it’s junk.

Knowledgeable visitors who find a dubious item for sale in a museum might wonder why curators or researchers would order such a thing inthe first place.  In most cases, they didn’t.  Gift shop managers usually aren’t curators or historians.  Museums are organic; like the churches described in Paul’s epistles, they’re full of different types of people with varying kinds of talent, each of which is distinct but necessary to keep the thing going. 

A lot of gift shop managers are often people with some background in retail who have been hired specifically to operate the store, or (and this is especially true in small museums) they’re people who wear a lot of hats—perhaps office manager, volunteer coordinator, membership services director, and gift shop manager combined.  They’re hard-working, knowledgeable professionals, and museums couldn’t operate without them, but sometimes they’re not as well-versed in the museum’s subject matter as a curator might be, and hence might not recognize why a particular item is inaccurate.

Sometimes gift shop managers will consult with curators about possible items.  At other times, curators will throw their two cents in whether anybody wants to hear it or not.   Back when I worked for a Lincoln museum, the curator explicitly vetoed a sample item we’d gotten in the mail because the packaging copy was riddled with errors.  Come to think of it, I used to gripe to anyone who’d listen about the quill pens we sold in the gift shop.  (Metal nibs were being mass-produced in America by the Civil War.)

Curators are particular about this sort of thing because when an otherwise harmless object finds its way into a museum gift shop, it gets a kind of implicit endorsement by the institution, whether the institution intended it or not.  This puts museums and historic sites in a difficult position.

Now, here’s the really critical point.  A whole slew of surveys and studies indicate that people are much, much more inclined to trust information they get from museums than from other sources, more so even than information they read in books.  People trust museums to a very high degree.  It’s as simple as that.

That’s why this little plastic soldier can have an impact out of all proportion to his size.  There simply weren’t large numbers of gun-wielding blacks in the Confederacy’s armies, but many people persist in believing that there were.  A souvenir in a first-rate museum (and the MOC is first-rate) could quite easily bolster this erroneous assumption. 

Someone pointed out that if there were even one enlisted black Confederate, then the toy is technically accurate.  I think that’s a stretch.  The toy still lends credence to the notion that such soldiers were common, no matter what the manufacturer’s original intentions were.  Of course, if the packaging had some kind of special label, then I could see the point.  (“The surgeon general warns that black Confederate soldiers were rare.  Use of this product may contribute to a belief that tens of thousands of slaves fought for the Confederacy.”)

I submit that this is worth talking about.  Conveying accurate information about the past is what history museums do.  Dubious souvenirs directly undermine the institution’s mission.  Too much work goes into mounting solid exhibits and programs to let something like a little plastic figure bolster an unsubstantiated myth.  If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.

Gift shops have the potential to do something more than generate revenue.  They can actually help fulfill a museum’s educational mission.  Good books, educational games, and accurate toys can disseminate information as well as bring in money.  We should be stocking the shelves with the same discernment and care that we use when filling exhibit cases.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites