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Notebook, 1993-

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Adjustments to Cultural Trends - 2006 / Outsourcing the Content

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"Selling out the museum gift shop" by Val Ross, From Monday's 'Globe and Mail' - May 22, 2006

"A museum store should be a specific, not a generic, experience . . . . The people -- often volunteers -- who work in museum stores tend to believe that by selling toys inspired by the contents of glass cases on which children were just pressing their noses, or by selling reproductions inspired by their museum's collections, they are branding the place in visitors' memories and hearts. They speak in terms of their "mission" and "educational mandate."


The official theme at the wrap-up party of the international 2006 Museum Store Association convention, a bash held last month at the Kentucky Derby Museum outside Louisville, Ky., was "hats." But underneath the brims, blooms and bobbing plumes, the worried delegates had something else on the brain: the trend for institutions to hire outsiders, chain retailers, to run their gift shops.

For Canadians who had gone down to the Kentucky convention, the subject of outsourcing was of special concern. Last fall, Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum became the first Canadian institution to sign a contract with Event Network of San Diego, Calif., the world's leading independent museum retail management company -- and one keen to expand into Canada.

The people -- often volunteers -- who work in museum stores tend to believe that by selling toys inspired by the contents of glass cases on which children were just pressing their noses, or by selling reproductions inspired by their museum's collections, they are branding the place in visitors' memories and hearts. They speak in terms of their "mission" and "educational mandate."

Chain retailers, by contrast, have a reputation for concentrating on high-volume sales of low-end products, supplying the same plush dinosaurs to all their outlets. Cliff Harrison, director of retail at the St. Louis Art Museum, recently told The New York Times that the chains were "a little like Wal-Mart. They buy a narrow assortment of merchandise and buy a lot of each piece." Speaking from Denver, Amy Nichol, the Museum Store Association's assistant director of publications, says, "Many of our members see outsourcing as a threat."

For museum stores, outsourcing is more than a tempest in a replica teapot. It's a threat to a gold mine. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (which runs its own stores) rakes in about $100-million a year in revenues from its toys, books and replicas.

In 2002, Canada's heritage institutions (including parks and historic sites) earned about $377-million from shops and food concessions. Besides, as governments supply less of a heritage institution's operating revenues, retailing grows more important. According to Statistics Canada, stores now account for more than 40 per cent of heritage institutions' earned revenue.

But that's just where companies say that they can help: Buying mugs, postcards and T-shirts in bulk, they can pass on savings to grateful museum visitors, increase sales per square foot and return a guaranteed percentage of profits to the host institution -- which, freed from operations hassles, simply sits back and rakes in the money

For hard-pressed heritage and cultural institutions, this is a growing temptation, which is why the news that Event Network will be running the new ROM store when it opens in the fall of 2006 has sent shock waves through Canada's museum world. "They're an aggressive company. They've approached us, and everyone else, through our finance people, promising the moon," says one Vancouver museum staffer. "Shame on the ROM. They'd never outsource their curatorial side. What do Americans know about Canadian heritage?"

Others fear that the company will do most of its buying in the United States or offshore. "There's a concern with outsourcing in general that small, local artisans will be shut out of key markets," says Sue-Ann Ramsden, director of retailing for the Canadian Museums Association. (She's a competitor -- she organizes the Canadian association's on-line and mail-order catalogue, Selections, whose annual revenues from items based on Canadian museum collections are well over $1-million). "Museum stores aren't just about money," she declares. "They are an extension of the mission."

Such criticism may be premature. Jerry Gilbert, Event Network's vice-president of marketing, says his company's relationship with the ROM will be a "seamless partnership -- we'll be invisible to the public. The staff will wear ROM uniforms but work for us."

Proceeding with delicacy, the company has hired a Canadian buyer, Nancy Herman, with 28 years of experience at Sears, Wal-Mart and the Bay. "I'm with a San Diego buyer right now and we're developing apparel for the autumn," says Herman, reached at a Toronto clothing factory. "We'll develop retail that's ROM-appropriate." And Herman is checking her plans with ROM director William Thorsell, who has an upscale vision of the store as a showcase for everything from geological specimens to Canadian-designed rugs.

In any case, Event Network won't want to repeat past experiences with Canadian institutions. The glitches when the company managed the temporary gift concession outside the "Bond. James Bond. The Exhibition" show at Science World at Vancouver in 2004 included "problems getting a management team that could work in another country," says Tina Betson-Abbott, manager of the permanent gift shop at Science World at Telus World of Science. "It wasn't the best example of what they can do. We didn't get what we expected and neither did they." She also cites problems after the company departed, when people would bring back broken toys to her store for a cash refund. "We had to take care of it. The show was gone."

Betson-Abbott recently dropped into the Event Network-run gift shop at Seattle's Pacific Science World, which she found "a bit generic" (though staff were "very nice"). As former gift shop manager at the now-defunct Canadian Crafts Museum, she treasures the handmade. "A museum store should be a specific, not a generic, experience," she says. "I don't know how that will translate at the ROM. . . . People are watching with great interest."




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