Museum Week 2015: Souvenirs

24 March 2015

It’s #MuseumWeek again! Today’s theme is all about sharing your souvenirs and memories of visits to museums using #souvenirsMW. At Wellcome Collection we’re lucky to have a shop filled with fascinating books and merchandise and our visitors often tell us how much they love it. To celebrate, Russell Dornan writes about the challenges and joys involved in selecting a range of interesting souvenirs.

 Museum Week 2015. Tuesday 24 March is all about souvenirs.

Museum Week 2015. Tuesday 24 March is all about souvenirs.

Before I worked at Wellcome Collection, one of the things I looked forward to most when visiting it was the shop. It’s one of those museum shops that transcends the generic neon rulers and matching pencils and offers souvenirs that are a bit more special. Tatler recently called it a “genius little shop” and visitors tweet us regularly with kind words:

Wellcome Collection is the “free visitor destination for the incurably curious”. It explores the “connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future”. The remit is broad (what does it mean to be human?) but with themes explored in a very specific way (like DeathSuperhuman and Dirt). How do you build a shop around something at once all-encompassing and specific?

 One of the displays in Wellcome Shop.

One of the displays in Wellcome Shop.

I spoke to two people responsible for the retail offer in the shop: Marion Akehurst, the Sales Development Manager for the shop on behalf of Blackwell’s, and Lauren Read, the Retail Manager. In short, Marion is responsible for the books and Lauren for the products.

The shop opened in May 2007, just before the galleries themselves. Marion explained that at the beginning, the shop stocked a lot of heavyweight academic textbooks, but it soon became clear that the visitors to Wellcome Collection, and its shop, tended to be the “curious public”. People were more interested in the exhibition themes and wanted material relating to them. Listening to what customers wanted and needed was an important part of developing the range of books available in the shop.

Marion gives herself a narrow brief and specific rules when considering titles for the shop. However, she occasionally breaks those rules if she knows visitors will respond well. Interestingly, Marion tells me that when selecting a range of books for the shop, it’s as much about what you don’t stock; not diluting the offer, for example with more readily available or expected titles, lets more unusual, less ubiquitous books shine brighter. When exploring Wellcome Collection’s themes, it’s about offering what some people will hope to find, but also having the confidence to subvert expectations and think outside of the box.

This sentiment is echoed by Lauren who tries to look beyond the obvious when selecting products and souvenirs to sell; she likes getting in things that are a little unexpected. The last thing Lauren wants is to patronise visitors to the museum. Whereas some museum shops can sometimes feel like an afterthought, a commercial necessity selling predictable or unimaginative things, she enjoys the quirky status of Wellcome Shop and hopes it develops into a destination in its own right.

 One of the displays in Wellcome Shop, looking in the direction of Wellcome Cafe.

One of the displays in Wellcome Shop, looking in the direction of Wellcome Cafe.

Our bookshop is less “functional” than many other bookshops may need to be, so we’re perhaps more free to experiment and delight people with curious books, as opposed to having a responsibility provide what people expect.

So how do Marion and Lauren build their respective ranges? Both start many months in advance of a new exhibition, keeping their eyes open for anything that may fit a future theme and mentioning them to reps so that anything relevant being planned is brought to their attention. Our curators brief staff across Wellcome Collection about future exhibitions so that different departments can be prepared and start planning for the next show.

Once Marion and Lauren have a clearer understanding of the content and how that will be presented, they each get to work. Marion likes to mind-map her research, highlighting aspects that will resonate with publishers, gathering info from our Visitor Experience Assistants, librarians and curators’ bibliographies. Lauren speaks to the curators and finds out if they have any product ideas themselves, such as jewellery or ephemera relating to the subject. She can get a good sense of the tone from the curators this way. Marion points out that thinking creatively around the subject is important, while making sure not go down too obscure a route. Something tangential is fine as long as it will sell and is sympathetic to the exhibition theme.

Lauren considers how other museums may have handled a certain subject if it was particularly sensitive or delicate. She also likes to Google the themes of an upcoming exhibition and check how they’re represented across social media to get an understanding of how the public perceive such themes.

 It's hard to resist browsing in the shop all day!

It’s hard to resist browsing in the shop all day!

Some exhibitions are easier to merchandise than others. I asked Marion and Lauren about our current shows, The Institute of Sexology and Forensics: The anatomy of crime. Marion said that both exhibitions really lend themselves to books and that there were a lot to choose from. The challenge was the tone: publishers pushed pornography and erotica for Sexology while a lot of the Forensics books were intense and rather graphic. Whereas the former were ill-suited to a show about the scientific study of sex, Marion was keen not to shy away from the intensity of the latter. The real challenge was making sure both large and popular exhibitions had enough space in the shop.

Lauren agreed, saying it can be hard to avoid tacky or indecent products when looking for merchandise related to Sexology. The Forensics exhibition is nuanced and full of sensitive themes; staying on the right side of that line was important but challenging. With the amazing Wellcome Images at our disposal, there’s a glut of postcard options to cover most themes; at least that most popular of souvenirs is a bit more straightforward!

Marion fittingly described her job as part art, part science: the creativity involved in selecting a range of interesting and unique books for fascinating themes is as important as the subsequent analysis and reporting. Wellcome Collection is arguably a bit different to other museums; it seems only right that our shop is too.

Share your favourite museum souvenirs across social media using #souvenirsMW

Russell is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.