Gardener’s Haiku Museum Mug

Curator or Shopkeeper?

The Museum Store was recently featured in an article in Hyphen Magazine, entitled “Curated Retail”. Ironically, I just read an article about how the word “curate” has been appropriated by all things pop-culture and is consequently over (and incorrectly) used.

But for years I have been describing the work we do in the Store as curatorial. This isn’t necessarily the case with every museum store, although it should be. Selecting or developing merchandise that reflects the museum’s mission is harder than slapping your name and logo on to an otherwise generic souvenir (magnet, spoon, thimble, or—shiver—shot glass.) If a person buys something from our store without going into the exhibitions, I want that person to remember where that object came from and take away a story that will make the name of the museum resonate in his/her memory whenever it is handled. Maybe next time, they will actually come into the museum to see the exhibitions!

Gardener’s Haiku Museum MugWhen a customer wants to know where our logo mugs are, I steer them to the flowerpot mugs produced for Landscaping America. The mugs include a haiku written by a Japanese American gardener. They are also printed with lead-free glaze, which I felt was an important (and surprisingly difficult to implement) aspect for a product that represented custodians of the garden.

We don’t have a lot of the expected tchotchkes in a museum store, but each item has been selected for how it relates or reflects Japanese Americans and their culture—which is vast and diverse. It rankles me to meet with a vendor who assures me that his product is a “hot-seller in ALL the museum stores” as if all museums had the same mission or should sell the same things. And don’t get me started on shot glasses—the only places where I think these really work are at Alcatraz (they have Mug Shots) or museums that are about the Old West or cocktails.

Maria Kwong

Maria Kwong is the Director of Retail Enterprises at the Japanese American National Museum.

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