museums&MORE Fall 2011
The New-York Historical Society Museum Store

Shop your way through history

On the surface it would appear that the Grateful Dead and Abraham Lincoln don’t have much in common. But look a little deeper – perhaps into the expansive 77th Street windows of the New-York Historical Society Museum Store – and you’ll find that both play an important historical role with a distinct New York theme.

Home to both New York City’s oldest museum and one of the nation’s most distinguished research libraries, the Historical Society’s holdings cover four centuries of American history, and include one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artifacts, American art and other materials documenting the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State.

“The New-York Historical Society is recognized for engaging the public with deeply researched and far-ranging exhibitions,” said Ione Saroyan, director of merchandise operations, “and the museum store seeks to have merchandise such that everything we present has a tangible connection to the Historical Society and its exhibitions and programming.”

Saroyan’s efforts are assisted by Jon Weatherman, supervisor of merchandise operations.

“This is very important for both product development and open market-sourced goods,” Weatherman continued, “and fidelity to our mission facilitates buying, keeping us on target and thinking of the eventual visitor’s perspective.”

So whether it’s a set of Grateful Dead cuff links or a Tiffany umbrella that visitors are looking to take home, they can be assured their purchase will leave them in a New York state of mind.

Selling History
Outfitted with fixtures of maple, glass and stainless steel, the 2,000-square-foot museum store is a primary visitor and member amenity for the institution. It addresses the museum’s core themes such as New York; American history; the African-American experience; the Hudson River School; the oeuvre of John James Audubon; a wealth of objects, including a large collection of lamps by Louis Comfort Tiffany; and a new children’s history museum and library that engages young visitors and their families as they explore America’s past.

“The New-York Historical Society opened its Central Park West doors after a three-year, $65 million renovation in the fall of 2011,” Saroyan said, “and the store’s core purpose is to extend the scholarly and educational mission of the Historical Society and to provide a unique educational experience to customers.”

The store’s layout allows the visitor to flow into the shop from the museum galleries or from the street, and although shoppers primarily survey the store on an east-west axis, they engage their attention by a variety of glass and wooden table displays of staggered height.
The large windows (on West 77th Street) allow them to present single products in mass or to promote a line or collection, and their size permits use of vinyl images and large graphics or to create vignettes and clusters with less bold signage. They also highlight the strong book collection, graphics and young visitor merchandise in alcoves within the space of the store.

“Books make up a large part of our sales and our inventory,” Weatherman said. “After all, history is often best presented in books, whether for young readers, lay readers or scholars, and we offer books for all.

“However,” he continued, “we are a full line store and offer interpretations of the Historical Society’s collections in many custom products like our popular Tiffany umbrellas, scarves and totes, our 1939 World’s Fair accessory collection and several lines of history-related jewelry, from the skyline silver and brass of The City That Never Sleeps collection to necklaces engraved with the unexpected tender endearments of men like John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton.”

The institution’s broad image repository has afforded them the opportunity to reproduce paintings, photographs, maps and even early Twentieth Century board games in cards, magnets, pens, shower curtains, coasters, puzzles, night lights, posters and special edition prints. They also sell New York history incarnate in such things as the Water Tank Bank, the ceramic delicatessen “We Are Happy to Serve You” coffee mug and the dynamic New York 4-D puzzle.

“Our audience/visitor tends to a demographic that is older than most consumer trend watchers keep under observation,” Weatherman said. “We may be selling fewer neckties and CDs like other retailers, but a single exhibition can skew a trend quickly, as was the case of The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society when our Grateful Dead cuff links outsold women’s jewelry two to one, and T-shirts set records unimaginable to us prior to the exhibit’s opening.”

Exhibit Value
Saroyan has found that visitors, as dedicated shoppers, make decisions influenced by price and content/utility.

“For our store, the average receipt value has increased in the last few years,” she said. “That they factor in prices is not new, nor, in current economics, is it more prevalent. We are always conscious to offer a price range that allows provenance content value in our goods at each price level, from the souvenir pencil to a limited edition scarf.”

To cite two recent exhibitions, for Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society, they offered a $140 limited edition giclee print of the exhibition poster signed and numbered by the artist as well as the same image as a $20 printed paper poster. For Lincoln and New York they sold a $15.95 exhibition tie-in brass bookmark and a $ 2.95 printed paper magnetic version (both made in the USA).

Because the museum is focused on American history, they do their best to provide shoppers with domestically manufactured merchandise as much as they can. Weatherman said the challenge is finding that place where value/price as desired by the customer coincide with the point of origin.

“Of course the point of origin is a deciding factor for some shoppers, but in our experience it is the value of the object or book that is the key factor,” he explained. “After all, many books are printed overseas, and few people who pursue an avoidance of things made in China decry a book printed in Italy. We look for the best selections for our customers, and origin is a factor, but not the make or break factor.”

Weatherman added that they allow the product tags or “made in” labels to impart this information. Concerned customers know how to look for this information, and he feels this subtle approach allows their other quality merchandise to avoid a stigma or devaluation, letting the visitor engage the product first on its own merits before its point of origin.

One of the more unique examples of how they address their local point of origin is through merchandise produced with Urban Samaritans and Channel Craft. Urban Samaritan, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that benefits the homeless by providing the job skills and paid work necessary to take that first step toward having a home.

“Bridget Sheridan Johnson of Urban Samaritan approached us several years ago,” Saroyan said. “Her proposal was to take colorful Historical Society exhibition banners that once adorned the building and recycle them as unique one-of-a-kind tote bags while providing training and employment to local homeless people.”

The idea was welcomed with much enthusiasm and Saroyan said visitors are both surprised and pleased with these bags. Charmed by the story, they’re often purchased both because they are a good value and because Urban Samaritan selects striking images from the banners, making each bag a trendy design object in addition to an earth friendly museum keepsake.

And regardless of the museum keepsake that visitors choose to take home, whether it’s a set of Grateful Dead cuff links or a Tiffany umbrella, they can be assured it will leave them in a New York state of mind.

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor





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