I was often denied a visit to the museum giftshop as a child. Hence, now I’m a fully-fledged grown up, I have a rather over-enthusiastic fondness for such places, something which my friend and co-founder of ArtMuseLondon, Nick, finds rather amusing.
I’m not sure why my parents steered me away from the giftshop at the end of a visit to a museum, gallery, stately home or cathedral; indeed, certain giftshops were not forbidden – usually those selling books and rather more ‘educational’ bibelots and trinkets than keyrings, fudge and naff wimsies. I always enjoyed the cathedral gift shop – the miniature models of Salisbury Cathedral, candles, “Medievalia”, brass rubbings mounted on faux-vellum, and jars of chutney or flagons of mead, purported to be made by local monks. Other delights were afforded by the National Trust Shop (with the National Trust tea room a close second), but English Heritage giftshops always seemed rather disappointingly worthy in comparison. The more extravagant gift shops were often in private stately homes like Chatsworth, which long before museum “merch” really became a thing, was selling branded items from tea towels to garden trowels.
Today the museum giftshop provides a hefty income stream to the institution in which it resides. It’s no longer acceptable to offer visitors an exhibition catalogue and a handful of postcards, bookmarks and fridge magnets; today museum merchandise is a veritable treasure trove, ranging from jewellery and fashion items to stationery, homewares, toiletries, and food and drink. These are not just souvenirs for the visitor to take home, but serve to inform and educate, build and advertise the museum’s brand and identity, and highlight aspects of the art or collection which the institution regards as important (at London’s National Gallery, for example, the shop is stuffed with references to Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, one of the most important paintings in the entire collection, from silk scarves to soap). The gift shop becomes almost an extension of the actual exhibition, reinforcing learning and a further opportunity to stress the main point of the exhibition. Merchandise is not just a souvenir of your visit; it gives visitors a chance to own part of a pedigreed collection and adds an extra dimension to the museum experience.
Whenever I go to an exhibition today, I am fascinated by the kind of merchandise on offer. The imagination of the marketing department, in collaboration with the curators who ensure that the merchandise connects directly or thematically with the exhibition, is often quite astonishing. Many museum giftshops are a source of original products, custom-made or commissioned. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which has an absolutely marvellous gift shop, sells specially-commissioned jewellery, fashion and homewares, thus supporting designers and creators while also offering visitors “curated keepsakes” inspired by the ambiance and collection of the museum. These are often items which you won’t find elsewhere: they are exclusive to the museum and therefore have an additional cachet.
Some people like to visit the gift shop first, but for me it is always the final point in an exhibition or museum visit – a leisurely browse of the gift shop before a trip to the museum cafe is all part of the exhibition experience.
(header image: the shop at the Musée National Picasso, Paris)