The "Curator's Den," a store inspired by old maps, in the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Wanting What You Get: Merchandise for Challenging Exhibits

October 24, 2016

By Blue Anderson

An operations manager once asked me if I always got what I wanted. The perception was that the “front end” always got what we wanted in regards to exhibits, special events and floor space. She didn’t sound angry or confrontational, but rather matter-of-fact.

I paused before I answered, thinking of a true response, and said, “I want what I get”.

Sometimes, we are given circumstances that are less than appealing or down-right unpalatable to a museum store manager. The art of wanting what you get is more than just adding sugar and ice to lemons and opening a lemonade stand. It’s embracing your challenge and asking yourself, “How can I make this the very best experience for our visitors?”

We start with our staff. We get buy-in, ideas and build-up with them. It is amazing what they can spark in you when you ignite them first.

Several years ago, my boss was watching our parking lot fill up with people who were just renting our meeting space, and he said, “What if the store had that space for the summer?” Free up our parking lot for actual visitors and sell more stuff? Once I recovered from the shock, I brought my front desk manager and my store manager together to create Tattoos: Art of the Sailor, our first “spore store.” (They called it a spore store because it goes up in a day, like a mushroom.)

Finding merchandise to fill the 1,200-square-foot space with tattoo-themed items that also fit into our mission was daunting—other museum stores with tattoo exhibits mainly had books. But my store manager was familiar with the Sailor Jerry line of clothing and accessories and reached out. The company was so excited about our exhibit, it not only filled our new store with great graphics and free staff T- shirts, it lent our curator the actual Sailor Jerry “flash,” beautifully framed and ready for installation. And the tattoo artists we consulted with were very eager to share resources, as well.

But what do you do when your institution is promoting something that may seem a little, well, dry or less than jaw-dropping?

For us, old maps, while beautiful, seemed a little limiting, but we created a “Curator’s Den” (that took home a 2015 MSA award for Visual Merchandising). We partnered with a local history museum and resale shops to borrow furniture, rugs and old store fixtures to house reproduction globes, and stocked up on merchandise from vendors, like Authentic Models. (Pictured above.) The total cost for the “new” store was $5—for the tape to keep the rugs in place.

How about an exhibit on WWII shark-liver fishing?

Yes, really.

What do you do with a story about shark livers? I laminated a wearable sign for the Seattle Gift Show that read, “Stop me if you have sharks.” When I wore it, vendors literally were running after me, telling me about all the different companies to check out. Vendors helping vendors! And a very successful Shark spore store was born.

Now, what about a possible exhibit on grain ships? Yeah, that’ll bring the visitors in. But … what is beer made of? I’ve been successfully “testing” beer products all summer (in the store, not in my mouth), so I’m ready if we go that way.

anderson_headshotAnd during an exhibits meeting the other day, when we discovered that next year’s focus might be hurricanes, I thought there wouldn’t be a theme store. What could I possibly do for that theme? But my front desk manager said, “Cool! You can do all that survival stuff!” and my store manager said, “Coast Guard!”

“Cool” is right. I want what I get.

Drop me a note to share how you found a way around a challenging exhibit subject.

Blue Anderson is the current MSA Board Secretary and President of the MSA Pacific Northwest Chapter. She is the Manager of Visitor Services at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

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