Off the wall – museum stores go experiential

There aren’t many places in the world you can buy vagina-shaped soap. But you can in Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), which specialises in provocative pieces and features a wall of vaginas as one of its exhibits. You can even buy said soap from MONA’s online store.

So how did we get to this type of store merchandising, where is “cultural commerce” heading globally, and what can we learn from it?

Museum stores of the past

The first sets of reproductions can be traced back to 1802 in Philadelphia; by the late 1800s, museum “shops” were around but tended to be limited to a box of art reproductions at the information desk.

New York’s MOMA, long an innovator in this space, began reproduction retail almost immediately on its founding in 1870 – all in the name of bringing art to the people.

In 1955 international non-profit organisation Museum Shops Association (MSA) was founded.

The 1970s onward saw the rise of blockbuster museum shows and exhibitions, often travelling across cities and countries, such as the King Tut exhibition. But purposely curated museum shops didn’t really become common until the 1980s.

Now there are even awards for museum retail. Award criteria include turnover and profit increases versus prior year, on-brand ranging, contribution to organisation mission and narrative. Thus the awards help to ensure that the range is not just a collection of random stuff.

Creating a destination

No longer an “exit through the gift shop” afterthought of cheap trinkets, merchandise in the better museum stores serves a number of purposes. Items are to fit the museum’s brand and narrative about its collections and provide a “shop window” to the broader museum.

They serve as a memento of a unique museum or exhibition experience. They showcase local artists and designers.

Most importantly, they are exclusive items not available elsewhere, which goes some way towards justifying the often-high asking prices.

At the Jewellery Pavilion at London’s Victoria & Albert and at the MOMA, information about the artists and designers is available including via staff ipads. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, customers can buy hand-painted Vans sneakers by local artists at $395 a pop.

New York’s MOMA has become a destination in its own right for shoppers aspiring to homewares pieces for their own homes, with products including lighting and tableware. The success of this has seen it open standalone stores elsewhere in New York City and in Japan.

Where cultural commerce is heading

In recognition that museum stores provide a memento of an experience, the retail experiences themselves are becoming more immersive and experiential.

The V&A, even before its £2 million ($3.47 million) refurb in 2017, featured interactive displays and of-the-era music in its museum retail tied to the “You Say You Want A Revolution” exhibition about the 1960s.

And promotion is important: The venerable MSA in recent years commenced an international Museum Store Sunday promotion the Sunday after Black Friday. This year it was November 25, and involved 10 countries and 700+ museums.

This promotion featured gifts with purchase, live music, book signings, cooking demonstrations etc at the discretion of each museum albeit with a recommended “event wide” 25 per cent off on the 25th promotion.

My takeouts on future-focused best practice museum store retailing:

  •    Sell products that tap into a museum’s narrative;
  •    Provide experiences – with involvement of and benefit to the local community;
  •    Provide of interactive and educational opportunities;
  •    Support local artists;
  •    Be multichannel – with standalone retail, digital availability.

The need to reflect and enhance experiences in museum retail and not just rely on merchandise (sexy or not) is reflective of the broader retail direction.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, marketing and research, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and research houses.


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