Exit Through the Museum Shop, But Not in Croatia!

How do we view a souvenir in the era of capitalism, hyperproduction and hyperconsumption? By definition, a souvenir is a memento of an event or place, but that description doesn’t refer to its material composition, manufacturing or its origin as an object per se. Souvenirs are most often tied to travel, people, and their collecting tendencies, and are viewed as mass produced goods which pop up around every corner and are thus equated with kitsch. In a time when a museum is a brand in itself, and culture a product, the question at hand is: what is a museum gift shop? Hence the phenomenon of the museum souvenir takes on a whole new dimension. There’s hardly a museum today that doesn’t use contemporary culture management strategies, and almost all today’s museums have an accompanying bookshop or museum gift shop.

Museums/collections of objects, as educational institutions of culture and history, present and practice authority over “the art work’s aura”. Still, museum souvenirs attempt to describe precisely that “aura” of culture through a few iconic images which are recognizable out of context. In the museum souvenir shop, visitors will try to relive what they have just seen, in an attempt to memorize the importance and significance of the art work precisely by buying a certain object, mug, or postcard with the reproduction of the art work so as not to lose or diminish their experience. On the one hand, quite an impending and didactic impression on the museum’s part, while on the other hand a commercial shop area establishes a certain sanctuary for visitors who are not so keen on art. An interesting research in Italian museums showed that during the recession, from 2008 onwards, there was a significant increase of expensive museum souvenirs as opposed to cheap books, which serves to typecast the museum audience as ranging between higher and high social status.

How are Croatian museums faring in the recession and do they have anything to offer? It’s an almost universal issue of bad supply in view of Zagreb’s museums and galleries, whose shops for the most part offer catalogues of previous exhibitions, having a hard time with reproduction copyrights, which, when they actually do pan out, are frequently reduced to kitsch. However, should the supply stay solely limited to reproductions or replicas, thus leaving the impression that museums underestimate the potential visitor-buyer, completely negating the museum branding strategy through souvenirs. The Museum of Arts and Crafts certainly deserves a mention, as their marketing strategy sells mugs of replicas and other objects from its collection, thus showing market awareness, while at the same time displaying a slightly conservative approach toward creativity.

However, the most anticipated museum in Croatia, The Museum of Contemporary Art will soon celebrate its first birthday. Slightly lost in space and time, it looks like it didn’t succeed in meeting high expectations. Thus its “Museum Shop“ is symptomatic of its actual state. First devised as a place of a creative, new market approach, their shop soon became a reserved, unsuitable designer showroom which, by all means, has to change. Nary a representative souvenir to keep a potential customer in the museum shop longer than five minutes is currently available at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

However, we’ll choose to believe that things are taking a turn for the better. At the “0910 Croatian Design Exhibition” held at the Museum of Arts and Crafts, prototypes of future Museum of Arts and Crafts souvenirs were presented. Picture tights with Bućan’s “Birds’ Ardor” pattern, bottled water for cleansing (spiritually and physically), a camera that shoots only historically relevant events…

Of course, this is in reference to exceptionally well-thought-out works-as-souvenirs of design students entitled “Shopworks”. The workshop under the guidance of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s curator, Ms. Tihana Puc who gathered ten students for the project (Dora Đurkesac, Mia Bogovac, Maja Kolar, Maša Milovac, Sarah Baron Brljević, Draga Komparak, Zoran Đukić, Jan Pavlović, Kristina Lugonja, Kristina Ivančić), whose goal was to create a visual identity and offer a new range of products within the museum shop. The museum shop as a platform of new ideas, where the product is placed in relation to an author’s work and mass production while the topic of high and low art is being questioned and borders becoming irrelevant. Thus the created works were in reference to the collection, while inspiration was drawn from Vaništa, Dimitrijević, Murtić all the way to Miroslav Balka. It is also in relation to the works that had to consider realistic production possibilities, as one of the designers, Maša Milovac, pointed out. An intelligent souvenir design which thus results in an intelligent museum buyer-visitor. It’s still necessary to find potential manufacturers, but we don’t doubt for a moment in the success of such original museum souvenirs.

The newly opened Museum of Broken Relationships, institutionalized and opened a month ago in the Upper Town (Gornji grad), certainly deserves a mention as well. A completely original product of Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, although a private and independent museum, has certainly become a role model, due to numerous satisfied visitors but also to its unconventional and unpretentious bearing. Although highly market-based, the Museum succeeded in capturing the public’s affections with its directness and creativity. It’s all rounded up with an extraordinary strategy – placing a classic, somewhat ironic gift shop among astutely displayed tragicomic love souvenirs which gain importance and meaning by their mere arrangement.

In conclusion, a shop should be an integral part of the museum, facilitating and complementing its educative function, keeping in mind that it has to address the visitors’ desires, expectations and significantly contribute to the museum financially. A museum shouldn’t be afraid of the market and trade, as culture has in any case turned into a highly lucrative business. However, it’s necessary to first and foremost financially invest in people who run art institutions and facilitate education in the field of cultural management – a field almost completely neglected in Croatia.