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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

Gift shops are educational spaces

I knew a fifth-grade teacher who asked her students to create an exhibition as a final project in her social studies class. Each year, the students insisted on adding a gift shop. It was as essential to their definition of “museum” as their exhibition. I don’t remember what they sold in their shop, but chances are they weren’t following IRS guidelines.

Why does the IRS care what shows up in museum gift shops? Because, as tax-exempt organizations, museums are supposed to earn money through activities related to their missions and collections. The IRS grants tax-exempt status only to groups whose main purpose is to benefit society; museums qualify because they are educational. If a museum profits too much from non-educational activities or products, the IRS might require it to pay taxes on this “unrelated business income." In extreme cases, the IRS can entirely revoke tax-exempt status.

In a lot of museums with gift shops, there’s someone who makes sure that everything for sale has a connection to the mission. When I worked at the Winterthur Museum, the curators edited the text in the l-order catalog, adding relevant references to, say, historic design motifs or the founder’s own history. At the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Chief of Interpretation had to approve everything the shop manager proposed to sell.

This wasn’t their favorite job. Museum staff routinely criticize the cheap toys and key chains meant to coax young visitors into spending their allowance. Nobody objects to the books on sale, but books don’t generate the income that souvenirs do. I’ve wondered with colleagues whether visitors make a clear distinction between the objects in exhibit spaces and those in retail spaces. And, in general, there’s often suspicion among museum staff about how their institutions bring in money. (I suspect there are complex and sometimes justifiable reasons for this concern.)

I’ve joined the scornful chorus around museum shops in the past. But at some point I began noticing parallels between my exhibits and gift shop displays. Stores don’t have the kind of explanatory labels you find in exhibit galleries; but maybe, I considered, visitors could be learning from the texts and objects in both places.

As part of long-term exhibit planning at the Arch, I mapped the park’s main interpretive themes across all our exhibit galleries. We hoped visitors would get new ideas about westward expansion and the nation’s expanding definitions of civil rights (along with the Arch, the park also preserves the courthouse in which Dred Scott sued for his freedom). In some exhibits or historic areas, we focused on a specific theme and in others we might touch on a couple of the park’s main themes.

But nowhere in on the grounds did visitors bump into as many of our themes as in the gift shop. Crowded near each other were objects and images of Native Americans and immigrants, steamboats and covered wagons, enslaved people and Civil War soldiers; not to mention the Arch itself, rendered in every material you can imagine.

Consider lowly key chains and magnets. We can dismiss them as “souvenirs.” Or we could consider that “souvenir,” in French, means simply “to remember.” And that’s one of the main goals of my exhibits—I want visitors to have an experience they’ll remember, to walk out with discoveries about people in the past or connections to their own present. At the least, a cup-and-ball toy might remind a family about their visit and things they did or saw at the park. At most, a kid playing with it embodies the actions of a child in the past, and might think about what it was like to be them.

There’s not much recognition in the museum profession’s publications that gift shops could be—in fact, by law must be!—educational places. There’s somewhat more attention from tourism and retailing journals. Some articles recognize that visitors themselves see a connection between items for sale and museums’ educational mission.

Fifth-graders might not have enough context to grasp federal tax law for non-profits. But imagine that they had to select items for their class’s “museum gift shop” that supported the theme of their exhibition. Mightn’t that enrich their understanding of the exhibit’s topic?

Related Reading

Donovan, S. K. (2004). Palaeoecology in the museum gift shop. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 115(4), 367–370.

McIntyre, C. (2010). Designing museum and gallery shops as integral, co-creative retail spaces within the overall visitor experience. Museum Management and Curatorship (1990), 25(2), 181-198.

Larkin, J. (2016). ‘All museums will become department stores’: The development and implications of retailing at museums and heritage sites. Archaeology International, 19, 109-121.

Adrian, Clare. 2005. “Visitors Value Museum Shop-- Exhibition Continuity.” Souvenirs, Gifts, & Novelties 44 (5): 128–32.

Kovach, D. S. (2014). Developing the museum experience: Retailing in american museums 1945-91. Museum History Journal, 7(1), 103-121.

AICPA. (2019). Unrelated business income taxes (UBIT) in a nutshell. Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.


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