Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Cafes and Shops

On the hunt for that special object that will encapsulate your museum experience at the Science Museum shop, London.

Julie Becker, More than cash cows, Ecsite, November 2016

In a previous life I was an exhibition developer in a large London museum. The exhibitions my team lovingly put together were the core of our public offer and the very reason why people visited our museum at all, we were convinced. A myriad internal and external stakeholders waltzed in and out of project meetings as the exhibition development process unfolded: researchers, curators, designers, builders, interactive media contractors, health and safety coordinators, marketing consultants… and invariably, at the end of one of these tense pre-production meetings, Mr Caterer and Mrs Shop manager would be brought in for their five minutes of project attention. “Did we perhaps have an idea for a plesiosaur-themed sandwich?”, they would ask shyly. “And what about a children’s T-shirt line playing on the personalities of different dinosaurs?” There would be some raised eyebrows, a few ideas would be half-heartedly tossed around, someone would (a little patronisingly) explain the difference between sauropods and theropods and on we would go, to the next – serious – agenda item.

In all honesty, back then I really didn’t care about the museum’s café and shop. They were necessary evils, respectively here to: cater for visitors in need of physiological refuel between two brilliant exhibition journeys; and generate income badly needed by mission-delivering departments such as collections care and education, while quenching visitors’ regrettable consumerist thirst.

Until that memorable brainstorming session. As a team of content developers, we were struggling to find a satisfactory ending to the visitor journey we were planning through the museum’s new multi-million pound extension. We had come up with several dozen terrible scenarios and were starting to feel seriously frustrated when one of us exclaimed: “- I know! As a visitor I want it all to end… in a shop!” “- Eureka!”, we all acclaimed, a little surprised by our own enthusiasm – and indeed, deep down, the idea of a shop that would sell beautifully crafted jewellery, hand bags, socks and umbrellas based on the stunning collections displayed in the exhibition felt exactly right. For after seeing so much exquisite beauty, we surely would want to bring a little piece of it home. “Erm, perhaps this café and shop business deserves a little more attention”, I concluded for myself.

Ten years on, the financial crisis has made the rise of self-generated income a necessity for all public-receiving organisations. It is no coincidence that a lot of the practical guides on museum catering and retail you’ll find listed at the end of this article were put together in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Even the most reluctant museums and galleries have come round and allowed merchants into the temple.

But shops and cafés can be more than cash cows, I will argue in this article. Not only are they part of a holistic visitor experience, they are brand ambassadors – and they can even play a crucial part in delivering your organisation’s mission.

To write this piece I visited a handful of cafés and shops (I’m taking you to some of them in a minute) and interviewed ten professionals whose museums or science centres have integrated catering and/or retail at the heart of their visitor offer and institutional strategy. Which incidentally might be an excellent way of bringing in more cash.

The first section uses the collective wisdom yielded from these interviews to step back and explore the fundamentals: why have a café and shop at all, what they need to offer and how they will achieve greatness. In the second section I’ll relate case studies of organisations going one step further and using their shop and/or café to deliver mission strands, such as championing societal causes and fostering creative dialogues. In the third section we’ll look into our crystal ball: first into the very near future with the rise of online and destination shopping (and dining), and then into a slightly more distant future with the help of trend spotter Elizabeth Merritt from the Center for Future of Museums.

You’ll notice that quite a few of the shops and cafés mentioned in this article are located in London – I happened to be there for a meeting when I started working on this article. I’m sure that similarly great examples can be found in Madrid, Berlin or just around the corner from you – please forgive this geographical bias.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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