Things in museums and things in shops

Exit through the gift shop

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 16.05.2014

Alison Griffiths describes the gift shop as the ‘final room’ of a museum1 – the last gallery before we exit onto the street. Increasingly, it is not only the last but also the first – strategically placed to allow entry before as well as after visiting the museum. Increasingly too, it is also the transition space between galleries, specialized shops or ‘sales points’ being located throughout museum buildings, their contents perhaps relating to specific exhibitions or areas of display.

The burgeoning of shopping within museums has sometimes been regarded as a negative development – as part of a ‘commercialization’ of ‘culture’ in which the market seeps its way into more and more areas of life, more and more relentlessly2. According to such a perspective, channeling museum visitors through shops is a cynical marketing ploy; the interspersed sales points acting as the equivalent to the commercial advertising breaks of television shows. Just as such advertisements might seek to target the audience for particular kinds of shows – trainers, deodorant and beer during sports tournaments – so too might links between what is on display in the galleries and what is on display in the shop. At issue, in this view, is just trying to find more and better ways to sell more product.

Griffiths’ description of the gift shop as one of the museum’s galleries, however, suggests that there might be more at stake. Rather than seeing the gift shop as a mere commercial intrusion into the ‘purer’ space of the museum, her observation suggests that we should regard it as part of the museum and its overall cultural work and effects. Regarding the shop only as an unfortunate intrusion fails to grasp the nature of the connections between things in museums and things in shops, as well as what makes museum shopping strangely compelling for so many people. During the recent world economic downturn, high street sales have plummeted in many countries. At the same time, however, sales at many museum gift shops increased3. This points to a difference between museum shops and other kinds of shops. Below, follows a short reflection on why there should be this difference and what lies behind it – or, put otherwise, why the museum gift shop is not just the museum’s commercial exit (or entrance).

I begin with the opposition between ‘commerce’ and ‘culture’ that decries the presence of shopping in the museum, that sees it as a kind of pollution of a sacred space. This rests in part on a widespread perspective on the market as somehow dirty, as not part of ‘pure’ or ‘higher’ motives. The division has deep roots in Western culture and is reflected in ideas about religion and art properly being ‘above money’. According to this entrenched set of ideas, sacred realms are partly distinguished from secular on account of the former ‘transcending’ financial motivation. It is widely regarded as culturally appropriate that priests and other ministers of the church, and also artists, are poorly paid; those who are personally very wealthy (even if, in the case of artists, their works of art sell for high sums) typically attracting suspicion.

Within this cultural framework, the museum is an intriguing institution, which takes on a specific role in relation to the sacred/secular – and the culture/commerce – distinction. To say that it is a kind of cathedral for the worship of ‘art’ and various other things deemed valuable by society – in other words, to say that it is a kind of church of the material instead of the spiritual – is not just an amusing metaphor. The things in museums are in a sense deemed sacred or transcendent of the everyday. This is not just because they were already deemed culturally valuable but also because their presence in the museum makes them so. Putting them into a museum removes them from the rest of everyday life – from usual uses and market transactions. Once in the museum they are not just ‘things’ but ‘museum things’. And once something has entered the museum and been subject to the rituals that accompany this process – gaining an accession number and set of documentation, being entered into a database and put either into a glass case for display or, more likely, onto a shelf in a special store room – it does not normally leave it. A key part of the idea of museum things is that they are being saved for the future: they should last. This is fundamentally different from the continual production of new things, and circulation and discarding of existing ones, that is typical of the market.

This ephemerality of the market is partly what sets up cultural fears about commercialization. It suggests a world in which only monetary value really matters and nothing is valued for long. It triggers fears that how we treat things might also relate to how we treat people – that they might just be used and quickly cast off, rather than valued over time for ‘real reasons’ – for some more difficult-to-define value – into the future. Museums, I suggest, help to assuage this fear. They are places in which things do last, they do escape the market and they don’t have price tags. As such, they are places in which ‘we’ – as visitors or as museum-creators or curators – can show that we know that things can have important values and meanings.

It is clear from the above why the museum shop might initially seem problematic for what I have claimed is the museum’s ‘thing-valuing’ role. If the museum tells us that things can matter for reasons other than the market and money, what about the fact that in the shop things do have price tags, they don’t stay there forever – people pay for them and take them away? Surely, they are part of what the museum is transcending? My suggestion, however, is that things in the museum shop are also infused with the aura of the museum: they are, at least partly, museum things. And this is what makes them at least a little different from many other kinds of shop things.

Over quite a number of years now I have observed things in numerous museum shops in many countries, and I have talked to quite a number of museum shop managers and staff, and attended events concerned with museum gift shops (with products, display strategies and so forth). It is abundantly clear from all of these that the objects in the shops almost always have some kind of relationship to the objects in the museum galleries. Sometimes, there is no such link or it is fairly tenuous – but even in these cases there is, I suggest, a sense that such a link ought to be there. One shop manager, for example, confessed to me that the Russian dolls on sale had little link to the museum’s contents but said ‘there are some Russian objects in the museum, so we can just about get away with it’. Her language here is telling: her wording indicates the situation that should be the case and an awareness that she was transgressing the proper rules of the game. She went on to speculate that if somebody wanted to buy the doll – ‘and they can’t do so easily anywhere else around here’ – they would probably legitimate it by assuming that there was one somewhere on display and they had just missed it. In this ‘owning up’ – as seemed to be the mode of disclosure in this and other examples that I encountered – to the lack of a link, then, there was an assumption that there should be one and that visitors would also assume and expect there to be, or at least be willing to play along with the fantasy that there might be.

What this assumption of a link between the objects in the shop and in the museum means is that when a customer shops in the museum gift shop they see themselves as also transcending at least some forms of ‘regular’ shopping. In his famous study of ‘the gift’, Marcel Mauss argues that when a gift is given it is as though part of a person is given – one ‘gives part of oneself.’4 This, in a sense, is what happens in the museum shop – part of the museum is in the objects in the shop, and a customer in effect is not just taking away something from the shop but from the museum. Of course, taking things from a museum could be theft but in this case it is legitimated not only by the fact that they are paid for but also, and more importantly, by the museum as institution itself.

Drawing on Maori ideas, Mauss also discusses what they call the hau, which he glosses as ‘the spirit of the gift’, and suggests is a feature of all gifts. The hau or spirit is in effect a set of moral obligations ‘carried’ by a gift. We should treat gifts in particular ways and we should remember to make return gifts at some point. In the case of the thing in the museum shop, I suggest, we regard our very buying of it as in some sense a return gift to the museum. It is not just a purchase but also a gift – a recompense for what the museum has already given us in terms of non-monetary value. For this reason, we might be willing to pay a little more or to still buy something even though times are hard and we are holding back on the high street. The hau of the museum shop thing may also put us under at least some sense of obligation to care for this thing a little more than we might for other things.

To know whether the latter is the case would require empirical work that, to my knowledge, has not been conducted. Nevertheless, the fact that museums are seen as suitable places to buy gifts – that we even refer to them as gift shops – suggests that the objects there are seen as things that might be more deserving of care and perhaps even tending to the longevity of museum objects themselves. Here I can only use myself as an example. I own many things from museums and as far as I can remember I have never thrown away anything that I have bought – or been gifted – from one. I have occasionally disposed of the sales bags from museum shops but even this was under some duress and I feel some guilt or discomfort over having done so. I do use my museum shop objects – especially the pencils, scarves and mugs. I have a very large number of mugs – almost a collection one might say. A few have become a little faded and chipped. So far, however, I have never thrown one away and the very idea makes me feel distinctly uneasy.

When we carry something away from the museum shop, then, we also carry away a bit of the museum and some sense of obligation to the museum – as well as a sense that it has given something to us. We are, in Mauss’ terms, bound up in a particular moral relationship with it. Moreover, we are acknowledging the values of the museum – values that are culturally caricatured as at odds with a crude commercialism of the market. Museums – and museum shops – allow us to have other kinds of relationships to things. While that also extends, I suggest, beyond museum things themselves – in other words, it tells us that it is OK to demarcate some things as meaningful – it does not do this for everything. We don’t have a moral obligation to all things. This is lucky as otherwise I would be buried in stuff and unable to find an exit route.

Sharon Macdonald is Anniversary Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Department of Sociology, University of York ; new book: Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today ; sharonmacdonald.eu.
Sharon Macdonald
© 2017 d’Lëtzebuerger Land