These stores are big money-makers for museums.
As much as 25% of a museum’s yearly revenue can come from gift shops and we all know why: it’s the last stop on the tour, a strategic position designed to give the patron a chance to buy a fragment of the beautiful art they’ve just seen in the museum. But, have you ever wondered why Matisse posters get chosen over more interesting or obscure works of art? The answer might surprsie you.
After spending hours looking at art pieces, some of those same images are can be found in the gift shop on everything from coffee mugs to stationary to tote bags. Seeing the same image again and again can actually influence how you perceive the image. It’s called the mere-exposure effect (or the familiarity principle). Just being exposed to the same media again and again can influence how much you like it and that, in turn, can influence your spending habits. In the case of art, repeated exposure to a particular work of art reinforces its importance in our culture. A piece you might not love at first sight can become a favorite as you see it reproduced all around you. You might think to yourself, “This is a really influential piece of art.”
One of the most reproduced art images is Under the Wave Off Kanagawa wood block print by Katsushika Hokusai, often known simply as The Great Wave. This and other Hokusai images are in the public domain and have been emblazoned on watches, mugs, onesies, bracelets, paper goods, and much more. Seeing the image often, according to the mere-exposure effect, can make us like or respect the image more and museums use this to their advantage when choosing what to sell in their shops and on their websites.
There are some other quintessential works of art we often see on merchandise: Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, and The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali just to name a few. But, relying on hugely popular works like to come to a specific museum and then selling merch with the images on them isn’t always the best investment. Going forward museums might be changing how they decide what to sell in their shops.