Keep Calm and Shop On

At one of the museum shops that I work at we have “Bentley Snowflake” earrings. I could tell you the price, the manufacturer, the dimensions and the materials used to make these earrings, but I honestly had no idea what the “Bentley” stood for until about a week ago. The Smithsonian Archives tweeted a resource about the topic – it turns out that Wilson Bentley was one of the first people to take detailed photos of snowflakes, and the Smithsonian has many of his photographs. My mind was blown – how had I never heard this back story before? (Below: A “Dendrite Star” Snowflake by William A. Bentley)

Bentley Snowflake 591

On the topic of museum shops, I think this experience speaks to two points:

  1. Training frontline staff is critically important for the success of your museum
  2. The museum shop needs to be an extension of the museum itself

The people in the front lines are often overlooked in museums – they are often part-time or volunteer, they have a lower pay grade and only work sporadic hours. However, as someone who has worked as a front desk staffer, a museum shop attendant, and a tour guide, I would argue that the training for these people should be a top priority. They are the face of the museum, and will be the ones interacting with the public the most regularly. They should be able to answer every question, know the back story to every object, and be helpful and courteous along the way. In addition, they can offer great insight as far as your visitor base. They know what visitors want to buy in the gift shop, what kinds of objects they want to see on display, and what questions are asked the most often. Use them as a resource, and train them well – training should be a continual process. Offer enrichment sessions, host talks, and give them opportunities on a regular basis to interact with curators and other full time staff. This could be as simple as inviting them to scheduled staff meetings, letting volunteers run sessions on topics of their choice and choosing self-directed research projects, and offering free admission to any museum events.

Secondly, the museum shop should not be an after-thought to the museum, and in fact it needs to be integrated into the museum’s mission and goals. In Museum Store Management by Mary Miley Theobald, she discusses how the museum shop should be both educational and profitable. This includes creating interpretational materials for museum shop objects and training museum shop staff as interpreters AND salespeople. Theobald recommends creating a resource binder for any of the objects in the shop with historical significance, including any research on the time period, related objects in the collection, notes by curators and collection managers, etc. She also encourages extended training for salespeople that corresponds with docent or volunteer training, citing that “the better informed you are, the more likely you are to make a sale.” So true!

Theobald’s philosophy has really opened my mind to a whole new world of museum shop enrichment. I hope to spark changes in the museum shops that I work at now, and continue to focus on their improvement in my museum career. In the mean time, I would love to continue learning about the topic. Does anyone have any suggestions for literature that focuses on museum shops?


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