Notes from IHA

Notes from IHA

“Shopping to Support: A Guide to Today’s Museum Store,” the technical insert issued byIHA in March-April 2015, offered guidance for creating, stocking, and maintaining retail space in a museum. You can find it listed here on the website in the Technical Inserts section, under “Governance, Administration, and Management.” As it stresses, it’s important that store organizers have a vision and select merchandise that supports the museum’s mission. Memorial museums and museums of conscience have some special concerns in this regard. While museums typically want to extend the educational experience of a visit and enable visitors to take home a memento that will remind them of that experience, they sometimes offer items that are in questionable taste. Anything related to food, for instance, seems to raise a red flag. A museum of funeral customs might get away with a miniature coffin made of chocolate, but the museum store at the National September 11 Memorial Museum caused an outcry when it stocked a cheese platter shaped like a map of the United States with the sites of the plane crashes identified by hearts. The platter was later withdrawn from sale.

Kaitlyn Riopelle, the author of our technical insert, points out the importance of the location of a store within the museum. The store at the 9/11 Memorial Museum is sited away from exhibits and other such spaces, suggesting considerable thought went into the placement. While memorial museums must deal with heightened sensitivities in every aspect of their retail operations, all museums must consider how sales fit into their ambiance. One cannot avoid the fact that the museum store is intended to raise revenue, but if this is perceived to be its primary purpose, the museum’s reputation may suffer.

Some potential pitfalls might be avoided by including planning for a museum store in the overall museum plan, which is often not the case. Including input from stakeholders with vested interests seems obvious, and this is now evidently a part of operations at the 9/11 museum, but this would be a wise move in all museums. Such inclusiveness could raise awareness about sensitive issues, including those regarding indigenous people, underserved audiences, people with disabilities, and people with emotional ties to the museum’s theme. Our technical insert mentions the need to consider requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in planning the layout of the museum store. Direct input from people with disabilities could be helpful and quite likely to produce ideas that would not have been considered otherwise.

Some people would suggest that in the case of memorial museums (or possibly all museums), the idea of manipulating visitors’ emotions or “selling” history is so distasteful that museum stores should be eliminated. Most museum supporters would challenge that conclusion, and many would support the concept that museum stores do extend the educational experience of a museum visit. There is no doubt that in today’s world, museums are challenged to find every possible way to make themselves financially sustainable. Most museums emphasize to their publics that proceeds from their stores help provide needed support. The September 11 Memorial Museum clearly states on its webpage that “all net proceeds” of its store are “dedicated to sustaining the 9/11 Memorial Museum.” Museum stores are one more area where planning, written policies, and sensitivity to public concerns can create a balance between educational goals and earned-income activities.