museum (shop) gripe

Why is it that, without fail, museum shops never have the thing I want to buy?

I’ll go through an exhibit and there will be some painting or sculpture or artifact or whatever that just charms me or blows me away, and when I get to the museum shop, I begin an eager race around the room, wanting to take some memento of that piece home with me . . . but there’s nothing. No print of the painting. No postcard showing the artifact. Nada.

The worst offender in my memory was probably the touring exhibit of The Lord of the Rings films. I walked out of that thing prepared to buy anything, man — replica costumes, replica weapons, replica jewelry, you name it, I would have bought it, because seeing the craftsmanship of the props up close had impressed me so much I was ready to pay for a cheap knockoff of my own. Instead they had some hoodies, some jewelry not from the films, a bunch of books, and that was about it. The incident sparking this post was my visit to the Asian Art Museum’s Shanghai exhibit yesterday: among the works showing how Shanghainese artists experimented with combining western and traditional Chinese techniques, there was a giant wall scroll depicting plum blossoms in moonlight, and it was stunning. The brushwork of Chinese ink painting, and the play of light and shadow of Western art; it wouldn’t have looked as cool on a postcard, probably, losing the vibrancy of the real thing, but I would have bought it as a way of sparking my brain to recall the original.

Nope. No dice.

The Impressionist exhibit at the Legion of Honor had a neat thing set up on a computer screen in their shop: you could pick a work of art, pick a size, pick a frame, and have a custom print shipped to your house. Awesome — except the selection of works you could do this with was tiny. (And, naturally, didn’t include any of the ones I really liked.) I do understand there are practical limitations on producing memorabilia of everything in an exhibit, but my batting average on this is abysmal. The things I like are never the ones chosen for reproduction. Oh museum shops, why do you hate me so?

0 Responses to “museum (shop) gripe”

  1. kizmet_42

    This is a mystery to me too. If a museum owns a painting and printing is so dirt cheap anymore, why don’t they say, “Poster? Sure, we’ll ship it to you!” or “Let me check in the back” and print it off on a quality color printer?

    There’s a picture in a local art museum I want enough to sneak a shot with a cell phone camera.

  2. aliettedb

    Yeah, I never understood that either. I hope that as printing becomes easier, they’ll be able to offer a better selection of stuff to buy.

  3. Anonymous

    Congratulations! You’ve just run across one of the ongoing conflicts between copyright and commercial exploitation of copyright!

    The problem is this:

    When does a photograph, or other reproduction, have an independent copyright life of its own? Well, for starters, it has to be inside the term of copyright; ok, for full-color, high-resolution photographs, that’s probably not that much of an issue. But is the photograph original enough to be copyrightable? That’s the obvious hard question here, and there isn’t a good answer — even for simple, two-dimensional watercolors paintings with little texture (remember Our Gracious Hostess’s comment about “brushstrokes” above? Thats’ 3-d… and a change in dimensionality makes things much, much more difficult to work through). Although the approach in Corel v. Bridgeman is the better approach, it is not (or at least not yet) settled law — and the photography clearance houses, among others, are doing their best to see that it stays that way.

    And then, on top of that, there’s the difference between “owning the piece” and “owning the copyright in the piece,” which is probably behind the LotR problems Our Gracious Hostess noted. Bluntly, the copyright in those pieces was owned by New Line Cinema, which (if it’s the tour exhibit I’m thinking of) was not the exhibit sponsor. That means that one can display the res, but not reproduce the intangible copyright.

    Putting lawyers in charge of determining what is “original,” or the difference between a “thing” and a “copy of the thing,” is a very, very bad idea. As Winston Churchill said about democracy, though, the alternatives are probably worse: Do we really want arrogant OOBs* like the Leopoldmuseum, or Max Brod’s daughters, determining those rights without oversight by lawyers? I think not.

    * Offspring of B… since they’re all acting like Ta (the female gorilla who took over a troop and acted like a male silverback), but it would be disrespectful to be quite so gender-selective on Our Hostess’s blog…

    • Marie Brennan

      I suspected it must be a legal hurdle. What boggles me is that there’s an opportunity here to make money, and they’re passing up on it. Why wouldn’t New Line hop on the chance to fleece people who have just been wowed by the exhibit? I’m sure they have a reason, but I doubt it’s a reason I could get behind.

  4. d_aulnoy

    If it makes you feel any better, it’s not just you. There’s a statue of triple Hecate at the Met that I love so much that words just can’t describe … it’s graceful, and fluid, and luminous, and wonderful. Do they recreate that in the giftshop, or do they use the crappy 2-D version? GUESS.

    So I visit a tiny display case off in a corner every time I visit, just as a mark of respect. The things we do for love ….

  5. metagnat

    I almost always have the same problem. It’s happened to me in many museums and many cities. Other countries’ museums have a slightly better batting average for me, on that front, for some reason.

  6. la_marquise_de_

    Yep. Always happens to me, too.

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