Are You Running a Museum or a Shop?

“Dinosaur skeleton at the Natural History Museum,” © 2006  Frankie Roberto, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

“Dinosaur skeleton at the Natural History Museum,” © 2006 Frankie Roberto, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Why do kids love museum shops? In fact, why, when you have a beautiful, expertly curated building full of artifacts, art and exhibits do you see and feel so much energy around that museum’s gift shop?

Before jumping to the conclusion that people are just crass consumers, pause a minute. I think there’s something more to it.

A shop, especially the really fun ones that a great museum puts together, is a living thing. The goods might be tacky or ephemeral, but their future is ahead of them. A museum may be full of splendid pieces, but almost by definition, their day has come and gone.

Don’t accuse me of bashing museums here. That’s not the point. The people who run museums do an amazing job of bringing vitality to things from the past. But notice that we say that a museum exhibit “really brought the Roman Empire [or whatever the exhibit is about] to life.”

Because we know that in reality the Roman Empire is dead. It was 1,000,000 times more spectacular than the gift shop, but the gift shop is still here.

I asked the question of whether you’re running a gift shop or a museum, but I didn’t mean it literally. I meant it this way: are you “preserving” something? Do you feel that you’re “saving” something? A form of art, perhaps.

If so, you could be in danger of running a “museum,” where we put the treasures of the past into attractive and well-maintained exhibits so that we don’t forget what used to be.

We put shop merchandise right in the front window, so people will see it, buy it, use it and come back for more.

There’s a place in the world for museums, but our industry is a living one, where relevance and currency is extremely important.

Be a shopkeeper, not a museum curator. Even if your mission is to “save” something, forget that it needs saving and just dazzle us with your wares.

As long as the future is ahead of you, the best days could be yet to come.

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