Tag Archives: museum gift shops

Bypassing books in museum gift shops

History people tend to be book people.  The first place I hit up when I visit a museum or historic site is the gift shop, so I can scope out the book selection.  It’s a great chance to find titles I might not be aware of, and since I’m OCD, I have to get a sense of what I’ll be buying on the way out before I can settle down and enjoy the exhibits.

That’s why this tweet caught my eye the other day:

Books aren’t top sellers at the ALLM’s gift shop, either.  The only exception is a history title that LMU publishes in-house, meaning we’re one of the few places you can buy a copy.  Our most popular items are inexpensive souvenirs: facsimile Gettysburg Addresses (we sell a lot of those), novelty Lincoln items, mugs, pencils, postcards, and plastic Civil War soldiers.

It’s a little frustrating.  If you want your gift shop to contribute directly your institution’s mission—if you want it to be something besides a simple income generator—then offering edifying books seems like a good way to make it happen.  But if visitors don’t buy them, there seems little point in stocking them.  A lot of gift shops thus end up contributing to the site’s mission only indirectly, by defraying the costs associated with other areas of operations.  (Of course, a lot of visitors who scout out good books at museum and site shops might be trying to save some money by waiting until they return home to order them online.)

Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing.  Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them.  Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them.  Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.

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Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

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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.

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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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