Tales from the Road: Museum Merch
I'm in New York for fieldwork and a little tourism; thankfully, I love museums as a researcher and a visitor. However, the combination sometimes leads me to some uncomfortable uncertainty about best practice. This week's dilemma: how to make your museum profitable.
The first thing I would like to report is how expensive museums are in NY. We are very lucky in the UK that many museums are free - Leicester's museums certainly are, and so are the major national museums. Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art technically has a suggested admission price, so you could just pay a dollar and walk inside, but how many of us have the balls to do that? If, like me, you are a museum fiend, and like to visit every one you can, you can expect to shell out at least $15 on average, though it might be slightly less with a student discount (these are often only availably to NY state students, though...). Sure, there are combined ticket discounts and museum passes you can buy - the New York Pass offers way more attractions than you could possibly visit in the time spans available, and the CityPass includes Met admission though it is, as I said above, recommended. You will still pay $70, at the least.
Then, once you have gone through your overpriced museum (and perhaps sampled the overprice and terrible quality food on offer in the caff - I paid $20 for lunch yesterday), you can browse through the overpriced gift shop. This, frankly, is my favourite part of any museum visit, as I am a big fan of museum swag.
The Guggenheim takes an amusingly kitsch approach to its gift shop. Apart from the great art books and fun arty toys (Alexander Calder mobiles for your home!) the Guggenheim has also perfected the art of selling itself. As you cannot take photos inside Frank Lloyd Wright's famous white spiral building, you have to buy postcards. You can also buy a Lego set, coffee service, salt-and-pepper shakers, a table lamp, and Christmas ornaments shaped like it. They also have chunks of the building, broken off during renovation, encased in Lucite and set into jewelry, available for sale. You can wear a modern architectural classic!
The Met, by contrast, is a little bit less fun nowadays. I still love their shop, but am disturbed by how much space is given over in the museum to its commercial activity. I remember the big shop to the right of the main stairs, with its poster-shop mezzanine having been there for 15 or so years, at least. There may always have been a clearance shop in the basement of the Egyptian wing, though I only discovered it a decade ago. Many museums set up temporary shops at the exits of special exhibitions, and the Met is no exception; however, there is also a proliferation of small kiosks selling magnets, bookmarks and books related to nearby galleries at major intersections throughout the sprawling space. They have also recently added a "boutique" with the bigger ticket items like jewelry (reproductions of museum pieces commissioned by the Met, so unique) to the left of the entrance, and there is a new sale shop above the main shop on the second floor. I can't remember what was in those spaces before, and have no way of checking as I recently threw out my "vintage" museum floor plans from all my visits, but I am concerned that gallery space, always a hot commodity in even the biggest museums, is being wasted on a shop that merely sells the same thing at every location. Is it really necessary?
I understand the need to keep a museum afloat financially by taking admission and gift shop receipts. The larger museums stay ahead of the game by at least making their merch more appealing for its uniqueness (why would I buy a postcard of art that isn't even at that museum?). But if even enthusiasts like me balk at stepping through the doors because there is a $20 admission fee and I am constantly bombarded by offers to purchase (and spend) more, how long can this keep going on until museums are not only places for the intellectual elite, but also for the economic elite, too? I wondered at the families of French tourists with two or three children - how can they afford it? How much are they enjoying their experience if the content is watered down, the food is mediocre, and everything is overpriced?