Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

A few weeks ago, my father-in-law asked if I’d ever considered writing about museum shops. I was a bit startled because, honestly, the idea had never occurred to me (and probably never would have). Because my blog explores ways that museums can uplift visitors and communities, I was compelled to focus my father-in-law’s proposal into the following question: Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

So I began to reflect on my experiences in museum shops. And each time I visited a museum, I made time to visit the shop. I began to appreciate the way that effective museum shops extend and enrich the wellbeing-enhancing aspects of the museum experience. Here are some preliminary thoughts (which I hope to build on in future posts).

Museum shops can extend the museum experience of wonder, imagination, and intrigue. The perfect example here (from my experience) is the Spy Museum shop, which, in my opinion, actually comes quite close to rivaling the exhibits. When I visited the museum in 2012, I became completely absorbed by the shop’s extensive selection of books, appropriately curated to deepen and extend content from the exhibits.

Museum shops can contribute towards the museum’s social mission and commitment to community. The gift shop at Logan Art Gallery (a regional gallery in Australia where I used to volunteer) is completely integrated into the museum itself with most of the merchandise displayed in cabinets under and alongside the front desk. The store sells local creations (jewelry, scarves, cards, ceramics) thereby supporting local artists and raising their profile within the community.

Shop merchandise can inspire playfulness and imagination, and extend the experience to others outside the museum. The fun Wizard of Oz products at the National Museum of American History’s shop offer an opportunity for playfulness and sharing beyond the museum; during a recent visit, my mum purchased Wizard-of-Oz-themed socks (pictured below) as souvenirs for her sisters.

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Shops can celebrate museum collections and immerse visitors in beauty. The shop at the National Gallery of Art (entrance pictured below) is a good example of the way that a museum shop can help to celebrate the museum’s collection, and re-ignite visitors’ memories of favorite works or displays.

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Museum shops are valuable because they allow visitors to carry the unique qualities of the museum outside the museum walls—and into the wider world. They bring social continuity to the museum experience, allowing visitors to seek out new discoveries, claim tangible mementos, and share the experience with friends and family through playful gifts. They also offer respite from the formality and restrictiveness of the gallery space; visitors can touch, hold, try on, and share.

Do you believe that museum shops can advance a museum’s mission? Do they have a role in the social service museum? Finally, can a museum increase its impact through its shop?

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3 thoughts on “Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

  1. What a coincidence, this was on my list to write about.

    I think it depends on the museum’s mission and it is openness to except a different type of engagements. Understanding that engagement could be gained through not only the collection but also its commercial arms.

    The thing with the shop items is as you say, they can actually share and take home as a memento, therefore lasting longer engagement with the content of the museum/the things people learn/ enjoy about the museum.

    I think definitely if it is done right it provides an added value.

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  2. Jane, yes, I think it’s an interesting challenge to give meaning to the commercial (and therefore less authentic) side of museum operations. In my opinion, the most meaningful museum shops are true to the museum’s strengths and resources (collections etc) and values and mission, and encourage an emotional response – ie excitement, inspiration, involvement in something bigger. Interesting to think how these questions can also be applied to museum cafes….

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