The new face of museum shops

Although museum shops may have started out as unassuming salesdesks where books and postcards could be purchased, they are becoming spacious, well planned , dramatically lighted emporiums offering literally hundreds of art-inspired items and reproductions.

Almost everyone who visits a museum these days browses through its shop, perhaps departing with a memento in hand. It may be only a 30-cent postcard of a great painting one has just admired, or it could be a book about the artist who painted it. It could be a children's game or a small reproduction of a fine piece of sculpture or Byzantine jewelry. Whatever the object, it is always related to the museum's collections or special exhibitions and therefore has implicit cultural and educational value.

In recent years the development of museum shops has become something of a phenomenon. Many are seen as profit centers that can help keep the museum's doors open and make up some of the revenues that once came from other sources, such as government, foundations, and endowments. All are viewed as enriching extensions of the museum visit and a means of building art awareness through a multitude of take-home objects.

Although museum shops may have started out as unassuming sales desks where books and postcards could be purchased, they are becoming spacious, well planned , dramatically lighted emporiums offering literally hundreds of art-inspired items and reproductions.

For both museums and the visiting public, this trend is significant. Museumgoers perceive the shops as places where they can purchase, with trust, well-designed gifts in keeping with the museum's own standards of beauty and quality, and at prices they deem fair.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been engaged in the sale of art publications and reproductions virtually since its beginning more than a century ago. Founding trustees saw that such a program would serve a double purpose. It would educate and widen awareness of art through inexpensive and readily available reproductions. And it would add revenues to help meet basic operating expenses.

So the Metropolitan Museum has long led the way among American museums in making its collections known and understood through its publication and reproduction programs. Today, revenues from these programs help maintain the high levels of service the Metropolitan provides.

With 3.8 million visitors in 198l, the museum's gross sales of merchandise and scholarly publications were $23 million. This included sales through the burgeoning mail-order division, which each year sends a series of catalogs to more than a million people and is still struggling to master the latest mail-order techniques. (Total income for the museum, as listed in the annual report for 1980-8l, was over $54 million.)

As a comparison, in 1968 gross sales of publications and merchandise were less than $2.5 million. In 14 years, sales have increased well over 1,000 percent. Merchandise manager Lisa Koch says this growth has corresponded to a generally rising interest in museums themselves and to the fact that so many more people feel comfortable and welcome in them. The idea that museums are intimidating and elitist temples of culture has largely disappeared.

Mrs. Koch deals with hundreds of sources, ranging from individual craftsmen to huge manufacturers, to get the objects sold in the Metropolitan's network of gift shops, whose space has recently increased tenfold. Her range of merchandise includes objects in glass, porcelain, silver, pewter, brass, and wood, as well as calendars, engagement books, Christmas cards, stationery, coasters, and the like. She also sells the bronzes whose molds are made in the reproduction studios of the museum itself.

''William,'' a small blue hippopotamus, is a copy of an ancient Egyptian faience miniature owned by the museum. At $38.50, it is one of the all-time favorites with Met shoppers. Copies of Early American pressed glass sell extremely well, as do Byzantine crosses in jewelry and a charming book, ''Metropolitan Cats,'' which depicts cats appearing in the art shown at the museum.

''In some way all the arts of civilized man over the past 5,000 years are represented under the roof of our museum,'' Mrs. Koch explains, ''so we have a mammoth resource to draw upon.'' Prices in the shops range from 30 cents for a postcard to $2,500 for the bronze reproduction of ''Oma,'' a 133/4-inch high goddess, whose original was made in Nepal in the 9th or 10th century.

The growth of museum shops is reflected in the fact that the Museum Store Association now has 560 museum members in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia. This educational association was founded in 1955 as a means of helping museum shop managers share ideas and expertise through annual meetings and seminars. A trade show, with 150 exhibitors, is also held in connection with each conference. This spring the annual meeting will be held May 9-13 in Chicago. Museum members range from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla., the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., the Tate Gallery in London, and the Louvre Museum in Paris. The association is headquartered in Doylestown, Pa.

The Brooklyn Museum Gallery Shop is considered a vital part of the museum itself, and all revenues go into the museum's operating budget. Last December the museum opened a satellite shop in the Citicorp Center in Manhattan, at Lexington and 53rd Street, to gain a wider audience.

At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, all profits from the active museum shop go into the fund for new museum acquisitions. The shop is owned by the volunteer organization of the museum, and the staff is part volunteer and part salaried.

Net income generated by the Phoenix Art Museum Store contributes 5 percent of the museum revenues. ''The only limiting factor to the store's growth is space, '' says Sherwood Spivey, business manager. ''But as the museum expands we plan to increase the size of the store and also begin to produce reproductions from our own collections.'' Because the museum store manager believes that affordability is important, she specializes in items selling for $20 and under.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.