Made in America


My Weekly Museum Visits almost always included a stop at the museum’s gift shop. The National Museum of Health and Medicine sells not stuffed animals but stuffed germs. At Ford’s Theatre, I bought my father a murder mystery (set at the theatre) for his birthday. Had I had the money, I could have perhaps purchased an entire wardrobe, or at least all the t-shirts and sweatshirts I’d ever need, over the course of visiting 30-odd museum stores.

Just as curators must thoughtfully decide what objects to put in the galleries, choosing items to sell in gift shops is also, in some ways, a curatorial act. The gift shops must strike a balance among multiple purposes: reinforcing the ideas of the museum, ensuring that products such as books are held to rigorous standards of accuracy, providing objects that visitors want to own, and of course, raising revenue for the institution.

In addition to these parameters, do/should American national museum shops also have an obligation to support the sale of American-made products? What about the other values-based labels attached to products, such as “organic” and “cruelty-free”?

The gift shops in the Capitol Visitor Center only sell items made in the USA. In fact, when items from China were erroneously purchased, Representative Rob Brady ordered that the products be sent back. The article‘s comments section includes a good deal of support for Brady’s move, as well as some detractors; one asks, “What next? Are we going back to Freedom Fries?”

For Mother’s Day, I gave my mom a piece of made-in-America merchandise from the CVC gift shop: a jigsaw puzzle of the ceiling in the rotunda. She was pleased with this homegrown gift:

My mother is delighted by her made-in-America jigsaw puzzle

Senator Bernie Sanders is pushing for the Smithsonian Institution to follow the CVC’s lead and only sell American-made items. The museum complex responded with plans to open one Made in America gift shop.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo, meanwhile, simultaneously appeals to visitors’ consciences and caffeine deprivation. Their coffee is Bird-Friendly: better for migratory birds, the environment, and workers and local communities.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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