You’ve seen the rockets. Marvelled at the moon rock, lit up like in the nave of a church. Ogled the astronaut suits. Wondered at the taste of the food in those silvery packages. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything along the way – a loved toy that had to make the trip too – and start heading out via the shop. Just a look, just a look perhaps. Pick up and twirl around one or two of the items. Don’t forget to by something branded so people know. Or something fun to continue learning at home. Or a postcard of your favourite thing so that you can stick it up on the wall and remember it until the blu-tak fails and it falls down the back of the sofa.
Exit and Gift Shop
Scholarship about science museums and science centres focuses on gallery and exhibition content, databases, social media and websites, and hands-on science centres meaning there is engagement with the content that is housed in these spaces and what is shown to publics. By contrast, relatively little has been written about commercialisation in science museums, particularly their shops: what they sell, and if and how these materials are connected with informal science learning. Where there are case studies in the museum shop literature, they are dominated by shops in arts and socio-cultural museums. But science museum shop is likewise a site of constructing knowledge and demonstrating cultural power, and it too should be interrogated. Attending to the shop can help theorise who the museum is trying to reach and in what ways. Furthermore, the selection and sale of particular items at museum shops as take-home continuations of the museum experience can be a context in which to address tropes that are embedded and reinforced in cultural narratives about science.
While museums are framed as having their roots in Enlightenment knowledge impulses to collect and catalogue the world in European Wunderkammer museum shops find their origin in the twentieth-century rise of western consumerism. From the 1940s, museums in the USA started selling mementos related to their collections. Kovach (2014) argues that over the course of the 1900s, US museum shops shifted from being small stalls that sold postcards to become elaborate collaborative design collections, offering items unique to the museum. Unsurprisingly, prestigious art and design museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art had the greatest success with such collections. Rising consumption patterns and declining national funding pots for museums have dove-tailed to see the rise of what Booth and Powell (2016, p.131) describe as the “future of the museum as a ‘cultural shop’, implying a growing organisational orientation towards income generation.” The objects for sale are aimed at consumers in the hope that they will purchase something that has been stocked specifically to entice them. The visitors who attend science museum shops are understood not within the context of in the galleries, but as capitalist subjects (ie. consumers of knowledge and products, not participants in culture and the sharing of knowledge). This delineation is messy, however. Kent’s (2009) research on the UK’s Imperial War Museum shop shows how visitors themselves frame purchases from the shop as a supplement to the education from the museum and a way of carrying it with them back into their day-to-day lives.
The boundaries of purpose are blurred on ethics of reproduction too. During their podcast Cursed Objects (2022); hosts Tee, Hancox and Procter have given critical attention to how the choices of what is being sold in museums have included capitalising on mental health crisis (an “Earaser” at a van Gogh exhibition), genocide (selling red diaries at the Anne Frank Museum), colonial theft and plundering (Tipu’s Tiger Christmas gift at the Victoria and Albert Museum or Egyptian mummy pencil cases), with questions about whether it is right to make money from such content. These objects trivialise and commercialise events and conditions that should be treated responsibly by institutions such as museums that ostensibly are teaching visitors how to understand the world around.
How do shops know what to stock? Rationalised within a corporate version of the museum, visitors are segmented based on their ‘types of intent’ for visiting the museum, which might include interest in cultural participation, ‘out-of-school’ learning for the family, school trips, dates, and going for a coffee. Many museums collect their own data on their visitors to inform this segmentation. This understanding of the visitor draws on the theorists Falk and Dirking (e.g. 2016), who argued that the visit to the museum is motivated by a visitor’s ‘personal context’ (interests, attitudes, needs, beliefs), their ‘sociocultural context’ (including customs, values, language all shared within subgroups of a larger society), and their ‘physical context’ (architecture, location, ambiance). Critics argue this encourages institutions to focus on those who already attend museums, and to shape the experience around them. Using this approach favours the most privileged groups in society (particularly those privileged through their racialisation, education, wealth, ability, and class) who actively participate in science museum visits, allowing their cultural biases and norms to continue to dominate what is available at museums. This in turn perpetuates structurally unequal access to these spaces, and shapes the stories they tell.
Purchasing an item from the shop at a science museum will make that object part of the visitor’s everyday science learning, both at the time of purchase and after the museum visit. These items, then, are part of what Emily Dawson’s (2019) characterises as everyday science learning, the broadest definition of experiences between science and publics. In this instance, the item comes home from the museum with the visitor, bringing science learning into a different sphere of a visitors’ life, and arguably allowing the item to influence secondary communities, such as family members and larger school groups. Science (and by extension, everyday science learning) never happen in a vacuum, but instead reflect and magnify broader social and political issues in the society in which the museum sits.
This way to Gift Shop and Boutique
I am going to think through the delivery of some of these everyday science narratives related to outer space, using specific examples from museums around the world. Outer space represents a particularly salient case study, given that it is highly popular among visitors and is widely merchandised both in and outside of museums. One thing that can be found across museum shops is a focus on NASA and the American flag. One NASA postcard, t-shirt, or baseball cap looks much like another, so I won’t fill this article with them, but know they are out there by the bucket load in London, in New York, in Stockholm. Instead, as an exemplar of this category, the London Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition shop, that gave patrons the opportunity to buy a Christmas tree bauble of an astronaut planting a US flag. In the context of sitting directly outside an exhibition that discussed a move to the Mars as being ‘for all humankind’, a reification of a white, American cis-man as being the representation of who ‘humankind’ is limits any broadening of this idea that has taken place elsewhere in the exhibition.
Elsewhere, I have demonstrated that displays of space in museums in Western Europe and Canada frequently align themselves with the US space programme (see Armstrong 2020). NASA’s branding spills over into popular culture far more significantly than that of any other space agency – onto catwalk clothes, pop-culture-trendy bags, riffs in movies, and music videos. This popularity of NASA, which is a branch of the US government, continues the circulation of the popular justifications behind the US space programme through culture. Invocations of ‘manifest destiny’ – the divine right of the USA to lead in outer space as it did in the colonising the American West, by violently displacing Indigenous peoples for resource extraction and wealth amalgamation – is thus propagated in popular culture. This capitalist practice and selling of Americana nationalism around the world teaches those participating in everyday science learning to relate to and think about science as a practice that is dominated by US-centric, and capitalist, narratives.
The second theme to draw attention to is the construction of gender within science practices. In many contexts this is the selling of ‘pink’ versions of items (space suits, NASA caps, socks etc) that are the same as the ‘blue’ ones (or other neutral colours: white, orange, black) – a pinkification of girls’ participation. Pinkification constructs items for girls as ‘other’: for instance a ball can be any colour, but a pink ball is a girls’ ball. Sometimes, this pinkification goes further than simply being the same items in pink. At the Space Center Houston pink jackets are sold that are specifically about ‘women’s’ roles in of the space and aviation history (e.g. the Women Airforce Service Pilots) whereas blue jackets show projects that involved people of multiple genders (e.g. the badges of the space shuttle programme). Elsewhere in the shop gendered narratives about how children or adults should participate in science are constructed. Pink t-shirts read “Girls rule the galaxy”; “How do you get a baby astronaut to sleep? You rocket”; or “I love you to the moon and back”. Reinforcing tropes of Girl-Bosses, needing girls as being subdued and passive, or preparing girls for care work and reproductive labour, the messages of these objects build gendered expectations for girls that discourage them from equal participation in science. This contrasts to the blue shirts that have detailed rocket-plans reproduced on them, images of rockets going to space or slogans such as “It’s not rocket science. Oh wait, yes it is”. Museums also sell “girlie” versions of hegemonically ‘masculine’ toys such as the ‘Women of Space’ lego set; or science versions of “girlie” toys, such as Astronaut Barbie (or generic similar looking dolls) with lunar dig sets and space helmets.
These items reinforce a gendering of science space. Where considerable effort and critical scholarship has tackled pluralising gendered representation in science museum exhibitions, museum databases, and science museums’ advertising aimed at young people, this is often not seen in the very same institutions’ own shops. This makes the contrast between what is available for purchase at science museums and the aims of progressive science research particularly stark.
Don’t forget to visit the gift shop on your way out!
The examples I’ve provided in this brief text are not exhaustive. They show how nationalist narratives dominate over and above the transnational collaborative practice that takes place in the research of space science. These objects construct and communicate binarised gender-specific roles for people in space science. This separation of ‘pink’ clothing items with descriptions characterises the young people wearing them as having a different relationship to space than being properly part of the scientific work. Such discrepancies point to a disconnect between the practices of space science and the ways that it is being circulated in traditional everyday science learning spaces and beyond. This disconnect is not unique to space science, and can be seen elsewhere in the commercialisation of science learning. This should push us as theorists in the social studies of science to examine why this occurs, which narratives are being perpetuated in these practices, and how this micro-commercialisation is perhaps linked to the larger scale privatisation of space (for a longer discussion of this please see Armstrong & Bimm, forthcoming).
Some museums do make special efforts to reject this gendering. The shop at the Science Museum in London has moved away from pink and blue items – a step which is particularly visible in their whole floor dedicated to space merchandising. This distinct choice to only sell ‘neutral’ colours (orange/white), I was told in informal conversation, was specifically motivated by queer inclusion in science education. This is not only helpful for bringing the shop in line with other efforts across the museum, but is also an inclusive practice that rejects binarized gendering and pluralises the possible (scientific) futures that are available for owners of such items. To my knowledge, the pluralisation of space agencies is not common, but more research would explore this further. As museum workers, pushing for change internally, alongside building interdepartmental bridges to share experiences, will be key to seeing change in stocking practices.
So as a visitor, or a researcher, what can be done? Certainly drawing attention to these practices is important. The grassroots campaign Let clothes be clothes1 tackled a 2014 collaboration between UK retailer Marks and Spencer and the Natural History Museum that produced a dinosaur-oriented clothing range exclusively marketed at boys. A 5,000 strong petition and support from UK members of parliament has resulted in both organisations now producing a unisex line of science themed clothes. Participating in such actions are possible, and Let clothes be clothes have template letters for giving retailers feedback that could be adapted to tackle gendered, racialised or ableist science museum shop items. Researchers thinking of everyday science learning could consider the impacts of commercialisation on science narratives. Already, scholarship in the field pays attention to the cost of participating in science museum learning (e.g. travel, entry, and time-off-work costs) and who this includes or excludes (see Dawson 2019), so further consideration of how commercialisation shapes access is worth attention – especially as the brands and museums that have been the focus of this text are but a small set of all museum shops that sell science-related items.
Exit through the gift shop
1 See https://www.letclothesbeclothes.co.uk/
Booth E., & Powell R. 2016. Museums: From Cabinets of Curiosity to Cultural Shopping Experiences. In: Katsoni V., Stratigea A. (eds) Tourism and Culture in the Age of Innovation. Springer Proceedings in Business and Economics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-27528-4_9.
Cursed Objects (2022) Van Gogh “Earaser” – ft. Alice Procter. [Podcast]. 3 March. Available from: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3yEpZ2R51uANGSXzbTsds9?si=41dc4a2ee11a4d33&nd=1 [accessed 21 March]
Dawson, E., 2019. Equity, exclusion and everyday science learning: the experiences of minoritised groups. Routledge.
Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. 2012, The Museum Experience Revisited, Taylor & Francis Group, Walnut Creek. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [21 February 2022].
Kent, T. 2009. The role of the museum shop in extending the visitor experience
Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing. https://doi.org/10.1002/nvsm.368.
Kovach, D. S. 2014. Developing the Museum Experience: Retailing in American Museums 1945–91, Museum History Journal, 7(1), pp.103-121, DOI: 10.1179/1936981613Z.00000000024.