MUSEUMS TRASH THEIR BOOKS
February 21, 2011 § 8 Comments
One of the strangest developments in the culture of retail bookselling is the devaluation of books by museums shops, a class of stores considered by publishers to be an essential part of the retail picture. The very non-profit institutions whose raison d’etre is the preservation of knowledge about art, anthropology, zoology, botany –a vast range of subjects- have decided that, while books are a necessary evil, they are an unprofitable and embarrassing holdover from a time when the economic life of museums was less complicated. Book buyers, like spendthrift government agencies, must be carefully controlled, and inventory beyond exhibit catalogues limited to the most commercial choices. Attention all employees in the book department, you may be given notice with very little notice!
There are many examples of museums that have adopted this attitude, including the great Temples of Art in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis.
The Chicago Botanical Garden, The Chicago History Museum, and The Museum of Science and Industry have out-sourced bookstore operations. Elizabeth Hubbartt, the long-time buyer at the History Museum, was pushed out the door last year.
You might very well ask the question, “Why should anyone outside of the book business care how the bookstore is run or who buys the books?” The answer is simple. A bookstore run by museum employees will be better than one administered by absentee managers who buy a limited number of titles and only those they can purchase at the highest discount. The in-house bookstore is truly a part of the museum, and its staff has a stake in carrying out the mission of the parent institution.
The vending of books in a bookstore is a tangible example of human beings doing their best. The printed matter between covers may inspire, charm or disgust, but it is the bookseller who allows readers a free and easy evaluation of this material. The countless negotiations between human beings involved in ordering, shipping, displaying, and selling (or returning) books, helps create a participatory marketplace with a human face.
Museums are supposed to be in the business of education, showing us the strength and inventiveness of the human spirit, or the surprising qualities of the natural world. They feature the work of people who did not spend all their time on earth making money, but who created work or amassed knowledge that might benefit the museum-going public. If a museum turns its back on books because the profit margin is better on jewelry, if a museum kills the job of a trusted and dedicated employee to save a few pennies, that museum is also showing contempt for its public.
You might object that it is unfair in an age of radical change to pick on the museum stores. Haven’t many university and college bookstores done exactly the same sorts of things? Yes, they have, and some universities ought to be taken to task as well, but to raise this question you would have to fundamentally misunderstand my point. I am not criticizing anyone for trying to adapt to the marketplace. Cost-cutting measures have been introduced everywhere in brick-and-mortar retailing. I do not expect museum shops to behave like libraries. All I ask is that museum bigwigs view their bookstore operation as part of the fulfillment of the mission that gives them their non-profit status. If there is plenty of room for tote bags and calendars, then there is room for scholarly books as well.
Treating books and booksellers with respect is good business, and everyone involved with the museum—visitors, donors, curators, volunteers—will be happier for it.