Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

What museum gift shops tell us about museums

September 11, 2010 · 3 Comments

As you probably all already know, I come from a really big family. For my time in the UK, that means SOUVENIRS. By the truckload. Seriously, I won’t be surprised if I have to check an extra suitcase just full of trinkets to bring home to my parents, siblings and cousins. Pretty much everywhere we go, I look through the gift shops to see if anything grabs my attention. So far, I’ve collected novelty mugs, decks of cards, pens, pencil sharpeners, magnets, Christmas ornaments…and I’m not even halfway done.

So after all this time spent in the gift shops, I’m starting to notice a few patterns. It goes without saying that the kitschier the gift shop, the more touristy the location. I mean, I doubt that many actual Londoners (outside of elementary school students on field trips) visit the Tower of London, just like I doubt many Londoners would want the beaded Union Jack change purse I bought my sister in the gift shop there. How many people who actually live in Stratford want overpriced chocolate with Shakespeare’s face on it when they could just go to Tesco? How many people who actually live in Bath want Christmas ornaments of Roman soldiers, or leather bookmarks with a gold embossed likeness of the baths on them? I think by this point we can all stop a tourist trap – or at least a tourist destination – a kilometer away.

On the other hand, we’ve seen some gift shops that don’t seem to cater directly, or exclusively, to out-of-towners. Take the V&A, for example. It’s full of fun jewelry and stationary and other knick-knacks that don’t scream “I WENT TO THE V&A.” A lot of the gifts focus on the art displayed in the museum, rather than reminding us of the museum itself. The National Gallery is the same way – greeting cards and tea pots with prints on them, coffee table books centered around a particular artist – Monet, for example – rather than the content of the collections. Its gifts, in short, aren’t just advertisements. The British Museum was the most interesting of all – it has sections for many of the nations the museum represents. I’m serious. You can buy sequined notebooks and pens from “India.” You can buy colored pencils in sarcophagus-shaped tins from “Egypt.” On the one hand, these items aren’t really “souvenirs” – nothing about them suggests that you went to England and all your little brother got was this lousy [fill in the blank]. This suggests that the museum expects to get a lot of traffic from Brits, if not Londoners themselves. (Could there be a class issue here, as well?)

As a sidenote, is it just me or is it a little disturbing that the British Museum gets to profit off tacky trinkets they designed after the priceless artifacts they’ve copped from the same countries they’re now selling these trinkets in the name of? Whatever. I guess what I mean is , it’s interesting to see which of London’s historical sites are at least as much for British citizens as they are for tourists. By my estimation, I’d say the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A, the Tate and the British Museum expect to cater to many Brits. Appropriate, since they’re all subsidized. And since they have the most valuable and, in my opinion, the best collections of any of the sites we’ve been to, I guess this is just more evidence that Brits have good taste.

Categories: 2010 MaryKate · Museums

3 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 12th 2010 at 04:16

    Good observations, but there might be even more too it. Besides the Brit/not-Brit binary, might we also be able to categorize sites based on gifts shops by class/education/etc. as you suggest in the post. The Tower is “easy” tourism. You don’t need much context to ogle precious jewels. The V&A, National Gallery, and BM can also be viewed passively, but one gets much more out of the experience with some prior knowledge. The “difficult” museums likely attract quite different viewers. The Tower is an attraction more than a museum, and the latter type takes effort. Might this affect the gift shop choices. They must know their audiences or they wouldn’t make money.
    Well done.

  •   mattg // Sep 12th 2010 at 05:35

    That makes sense. The tower of london can sell tower related gifts because that is what the people came there to see. On that note, museums must sell in their gift shops things representing what the people came to see, the art or objects, whether they be British or not.

  •   brownrac // Sep 12th 2010 at 11:46

    In terms of the sophistication of the items in the gift shop, the attraction vs. museum idea was very much evident at the birthplace in Stratford. Although for times’ sake we had to make a pretty quick run through, from what I saw- teddy bears, finger puppets, tacky postcards with pictures of cartoon mice in Shakespearean dress (my personal favorite, and yes, purchase)- it was almost exclusively kitsch. Did they even sell copies of Shakespeare’s plays there?

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