Museum shops online

This summer, together with my research team Emmy van Arent and Kim van Buuren, we look at museum shops online. In this post, we present the rationale for our investigation and preliminary results from the 96 Dutch online museum shops identified. We argue museum products enable people to take a piece of the museum home, potentially contributing to free-choice learning while expanding the overall museum experience.

The pandemic kept many museums closed for a good part of the year. The only way to contact museums was remotely online. Communication via social media saw an all-time high dissemination of virtual tours, short lectures, and posts translating much of the work of the museums to the digital medium, as reported by NEMO and in my previous post. We wondered: how are museums’ income generating activities represented online?

We decided to look at the paid products and services available online, in the museum shop and other membership and donating schemes. In this post, we report the preliminary analysis of the online shops. From the 437 registered museums in the Netherlands, we identified only 96 have an online shop. We gathered data in 3 steps: we first selected products from each ‘category’ (N=421) and noted their relation to the museum theme, reference to the collection object, the education and social values, as well as the characteristics of production, including collaborative links or hand made character based on visible traits and reported information. 

In a second step, we identified the expected common products  (catalogue, postcard, reproduction, shawl, tea towel, jewellery, mug and the facemask) as well as the most and least expensive product from each shop (N=459). This led to a full dataset of 690 products which we further analysed. In a last step, a selection of products was analysed in terms of presentation noting the images and curated story available (N=81).

From the literature, we expected the museum shop online to be part of the overall experience, contributing to free-choice learning and to reflect about the visit, potentially contributing to capital formation, as has been argued for the physical shop (Falk and Storksdieck, 2010; Komarack, 2019; Kent, 2010; Larkin, 2019).

We found little connection between the shop online and the content on the collection or general online museum services, except for a handful products sold to accompany the virtual online tour. One example is the Mauritshuis set of Fleeting scents in colours to accompany the exhibition Fleeting, available online as a film where curator Ariane van Suchtelen and journalist / theater maker Joël Broekaert “take you back to a bygone era.” Most museum online shops do not appear to be conceptualized as extension of the overall online experience, which is unfortunate.

Regarding educational potential, only 30,7% of products include information related to the collections or an explanation about its historic or symbolic significance. Considering that the online shop is available to any individual, with any amount of previous museum experience, we believe museums could increase the educational impact of products when providing a short text about it, either about the collection item depicted, its maker, its history, or any other significant element of value. After all, story telling is one core skill of museums.

Stories add value to the products, which in turn gain significance for the consumer or receiver of the gift. One example is the cheese board from the East Indiaman Amsterdam available from the Scheepvaart Museum in Amsterdam. The caption reads:

From September 2020 until April 2021 the eye catcher of the museum, the East Indiaman Amsterdam, was away for repair. One of the big changes were the removal of the 3 masts to replace with new ones. From the old masts the Maritime Museum made cheese boards (wood type Oregon Pine). They have an imprint of the ship on the front and a description of which mast they were made from and on the back there is an engraved QR code that is linked to photos of the restoration. A true collector’s item to have in your kitchen.

Another example is the description of the handmade bottle of perfume (image at the top of the post) hand made by a Roman potter from the original exhibited at the Museum of Antiquities, used for special oils and now available for your favourite perfume at the Roman adventure park Archeon for €15. Such information added to the products can easily serve to extend the educational reach of a museum beyond the visit and beyond the physical or digital walls.

Museum products also communicate the values of the museum. Besides education, products can convey a message of sustainability, health or social awareness. We only found 4% of products to present an environmental message, generally associated with the use of recycled materials such as a shawl made with 70% post-consumer textile waste and 30% recycled PET, saving 3,000 litres water and 4kg of CO2 in production. Not surprisingly, face masks communicated health awareness while social awareness was present often in hand made objects, such as a soap made in Italy presented with a case and grater made of 98% recycled plastic of which a portion of the proceeds are given to a non-profit organization that protects and conserves ocean species.

While not all products had a story (some products did not even have an image!), a few products presented long stories, such as the limited edition Miffy “designed by students from world-renowned design academies, inspired by the creative legacy of Dick Bruna” and influenced by world cultures, or the authentic Northeast Fries wool fisherman’s sweater made with a patron copied from a photo from the 1920s by the granddaughter of the fisherman.

A small 19% of products in our dataset were made in collaboration, most often with artists (15%). An example is the affiche ‘Artist’s Call’ for sale displaying the panel adaptations to fit a mobile phone case commissioned by the Museum Belvédère. The ‘Artist’s Call’ project “wants to emphasize the beneficial significance of visual art – especially in times of uncertainty – and to capitalize on the good relations between artists, the museum, and the public.” A small group of objects was made in collaboration with large firms (2%). We expect local collaborations to increase as museums engage with their communities, contribute to their local economies while lowering the global footprint.

To our surprise, museums have rather low prices for their objects. From our dataset, the maximum price found was €16,452 while the lower price was €0: a candid camera free for purchase (paid shipping), a colouring book available for free download, and a digital image with a watermark. 87% of products were less than €100, 80% of products were available for less than €50 and 60% of products are under €20.

We did not find a typical museum product. The most frequently found product were postcards (in 42% of our museum shops online with average price of €6), while catalogues were found in 25% of museum shops online (average price €27). All museum shops have a unique curated selection of objects that best responds to their collection and to their mission. We found, however, 30% of products that do not reference the collection and 20% of products that appear not related to the theme of the museum at all, signalling a pure commercial purpose.

Do museum shop products online contribute to taste formation and overall cultural capital formation? we believe so and invite further research on the effect of museum product consumption, particularly regarding stimulation of free-learning and change in attitudes towards a given topic (such as the environment). Do museum products stimulate museum visits? sale of products related to new exhibitions before opening may provide valuable information for consumers. Are children’s products educational? from our sample, only 9% of products identified targetted children, half of which had a clear educational goal.

Our analysis evidences the role of the museum shop products in extending the museum experience by taking the museum home, which appear to be underdeveloped. Museums appear to miss the opportunity to curate their products in the shop with the same attention they curate their exhibitions, generally also available for a fee. A well curated shop would unquestionably increase the educational impact of museums beyond any single exhibition visit. Regarding pricing, evidence suggests products availability considers accessibility (with 80% of products available under €50 and 60% of products under €20).

In our next post we will present the characteristics of the ideal museum shop product by analysing the quality signals in presentation and curated story.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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