Some Thoughts on Shopseums

A thought has been brewing in my mind for a couple of years now, that there is an interesting crossover or relationship between shops and museums. Both are places full of stuff, both have the stuff intentionally displayed to show it off and to convey something about it, and both are places that some people like to mooch around in their leisure time. Most museums have a shop in them, and many shops have displays of things that are not for sale, but are displayed to give a particular feel to the place. I even wondered about creating a Shopseum Scale. At one end would be shopless museums, and at the other would be Argos.

On Saturday, I visited a place that would fall right in the middle of this scale, at the Old Skating Rink Gallery in Norwich. This lovely old building houses both the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection (SADACC), a museum of vernacular Asian arts and crafts; and Country & Eastern, an Asian clothing and furnishings emporium.

I had found out about it online before our visit to the city, and had imagined that part of the building would be museum, and another part would be shop. But, unlike anywhere I have been before, the two almost entirely overlap. Within this large, timbered hall, objects and artefacts line the walls, some of which have price tags, and others SADACC collection labels. Almost half of the floor space is taken up with stacks of oriental rugs, all of which are for sale. But the other half consists of an open rectangle of display cabinets, containing paintings, crafts, and textiles, and topped with some rather wonderful furniture. Coming off the main hall are rooms and balconies, some of which are shop, and some museum. And in the nooks and crannies are tables of nick-nacks, all with a price tag.

Panoramic image of The South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection
Panoramic image of The South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection

There are historical reasons for this mix. Thirty years ago, the founders, Phillip and Jeannie Millward, travelled around South Asia, fell in love with the style of craftwork there, and decided to start importing it to the UK. Over time, they accrued many objects that were beautiful or interesting enough that they did not want to part with them, and so the collection began. In 2010 they established the SADACC Trust to care for the collection, in 2012 they became affiliated to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, and their plans are to continue the expansion of the museum (and inversely, to shrink the shop) within the space of the building.

It was a fascinating place to visit, in large part because of my own reaction to this muddling of shop and museum. As we entered, I found myself looking around, trying to work out where the gallery space was. A very helpful member of staff came over, and pointed out which bits were which, but explained that really, everything was in together. My second reaction, after the initial confusion, was one of mild outrage, that the sacred concept of a museum was being debased by this amalgamation with a shop. However, I had to admit, it was a beautiful space, full of beautiful things.

I put my qualms to one side, and we wandered around. I took photographs, we chatted to the owners, I touched the things that were for sale, and respectfully looked at the collections, and we bought a few bits and bobs.

But as we left, I still felt that something wasn’t quite right. To understand this, I think my initial idea of a ‘Shopseum Scale’ needs to be a bit less linear, and for this, I’m going to take you on a slightly complicated tangent. Back when I was doing my MSc, I came across a concept that really stuck with me: that of the ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’. Apologies to those of you unused to this sort of language, but I hope if you stick with me, it will make some sense. An ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’ is a way to describe something according to the region it takes up in an imaginary space (or graph) defined by many different dimensions. It’s commonly used in ecology to describe ecological niches, but there’s no reason why we can’t use it to describe the niches of more human concerns. So, the dimensions used to describe shops or museums could include: ‘object-based’, ‘sociability’, ‘education’, aesthetics’, ‘commercialism’, and so on.

Shopseum Hypervolume
Shopseum Hypervolume

In a graph that included all of these dimensions, the blob represented by each individual institution would be a different shape from all other institutions, because institutions each measure up a little differently from each other according to these categories. But we would expect museums to take up a roughly similar space to each other, and shops to take up a somewhat different space, although there might be something of an overlap between the shops and museums. I’ve tried to show this in this diagram, (although it only has three dimensions, because otherwise it would break our brains!).

Now, the dimensions I talked about above are really ways that we could define an institution and its patrons from the outside — we could, in theory, judge these things using observations and measurements. But we could create another hypervolume for how we relate to institutions personally, or the niches they occupy in our minds. I would say for shops and museums, a few relevant dimensions are: ‘relaxing’, ‘stimulating’, ‘frustrating’, ‘my sort of place’, ‘interesting’, ‘inducing empathy’, and ‘inducing acquisitiveness’ (the list could go on, but I’ll spare you).

Let’s look at the last of these. I have to admit that many museums do induce acquisitiveness in me — I look at the beautiful things in them and imagine them in my life. I’d like that Picasso painting on my wall, or that Breuer chair in my living room. But this feeling is generally eclipsed by the interest I have in learning about these things, the awe I feel at seeing these ‘real things’, and a desire to inspect them closely, to admire the craftsmanship, and to discover the stories behind them.

What was interesting as I look back at my response to SADACC, was that these ‘museumy’ responses to the objects were instead eclipsed by my acquisitiveness. Unlike in a typical museum, I knew that it was perfectly possible for me to purchase many of the objects around me if I wanted to, and somehow those objects became more salient and interesting to me than the museum objects that I couldn’t buy. The niche occupied in my mind by SADACC therefore became defined by a strong acquisitiveness, and a weak interest or desire to learn.

I do very much recommend a trip to SADACC for anyone who is interested in Asian craft and design. It is a lovely place to spend some time, and there is a lot to admire in and about it. But I do wonder about the compatibility of shops and museums together. I think there’s a very good reason why gift shops should be kept separate from the rest of the museum. I strongly suspect that the acquisitiveness they induce is to the detriment of a broader interest in the meanings of objects (unless I’m just particularly covetous). And the meaningfulness of objects is surely what makes it worthwhile to collect, conserve and display them. Otherwise they are just pretty things.


*P.S. For those determined souls who have made it to the end of this post, I would like to apologise for it’s epic length. I am in the process of writing up my PhD, and am clearly over-analysing everything in sight right now!


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8 Responses to Some Thoughts on Shopseums

  1. Tom Stevelt says:

    What are the three dimensions for your graphic? Based on your article, it seems that the graphic should be one-dimensional.

    • elee says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry the diagram isn’t clear – it’s hard to explain in a short(ish) blog post, when really I’d like to be waving my hands around and arguing it out in a pub somewhere! The axes on this diagram don’t represent anything specific, other than the fact that the imaginary space that defines these institutions is multi-dimensional. They could be any of the dimensions I mention in the blog post. This isn’t a mathematical diagram, but more a thought experiment to imagine the ecological niches occupied by museums and shops respectively. I hope that makes a bit more sense of it!

  2. Regan says:

    Hi Elee,

    By interesting coincidence, I’ve just had an article published in Visitor Studies which looks at the overlaps between the design of museum and retail spaces. I’m coming at it from a different angle compared to this post (I’m looking at frameworks for studying the design of exhibition spaces and drawing upon models from the retail world), but you might find the reference list useful

    • elee says:

      Hi Regan,
      I definitely think there’s a huge amount of interesting research to be done drawing on both museum/visitor studies and research into retail (of which, I have to say, I know nothing – the blog, as you can probably tell, is just my personal reflections). Thanks for the link to your article. It’s good to know about work that’s already being done in this area. I think questions of what museums can learn from shops are particularly interesting. I’m a firm believer that museums’ main competitors are not other museums, but shops (and, probably, shopping centres). Of course, I don’t think museums should just try to become like shops. But I do think museums shouldn’t be snobby about admitting what shops do well. Taking a visitor/consumer-centric approach to this is, I think, vital.

  3. Alex W says:

    Really interesting post, Elee. I’ve often thought about this when rummaging around in charity and junk shops – but from a ‘what if people were to do this in museums more often?’ angle… You’d be interested in Sharon Macdonald’s current work on this with a PhD student at York – I am hoping that she’ll be doing a Brown Bag in Leicester in 2014 about museum shopping. I’ve never heard of this place in Norwich but it sounds AMAZING and definitely somewhere to go!

    • elee says:

      Hi Alex. I’ve sent a link to the PhD student in York, as I met her at a conference recently. I’d love to find out more about Sharon Macdonald’s take on museums and shops – there’s so many different perspectives you can come at it from. The links to vintage shops are also fascinating – lots of these shops are like mini-museums in many ways, especially aesthetically.

  4. Bradley says:

    Very interesting thoughts, but have you thought about art galleries? There’s very little difference between many commercial galleries, public institutions, and art museums, only in a commercial gallery you could potentially buy a work if you fall in love with it (and have the money), yet in many cases works displayed in publicly funded institutions may still be for sale. Even at Tate Britain, after visiting the Richard Deacon exhibition you can purchase a small edition work in the shop.

    I’ll carry on reading the rest of your blog over the next few days.

    • elee says:

      Thanks for your comment Bradley. Yes, art galleries are also interesting in this respect. I would be interested to know how different a visit to an art gallery feels for visitors who are wealthy enough to afford the art, compared to those who aren’t.

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