May 2, 2007

The Museum of Useful Things

Can a store call itself a museum? I thought that was ours!

While visiting Boston this winter, I found myself wandering through a small store called The Museum of Useful Things. This museum/store displays and sells items that are regularly used in everyday life but have been designed to have a pleasing aesthetic as well. Additionally, The Museum of Useful Things has a few small virtual and physical exhibits for interested visitors to gaze upon. By calling itself a museum, this store is imagining itself as more than a retail outlet – it becomes a site of learning.

In a previous post, I suggested that museums might show and sell reproductions of historical artifacts; perhaps this is the first step in that direction. On the other hand, it seems a tad worrisome that a museum-store hybrid is being conceived by a retail outlet first because a business-like orientation of the museum-store could undermine the museum’s mission to collect, preserve, and educate. Museums seem compelled to move to business models for success though, which makes the museum-store a plausible future manifestation.

The Museum of Useful Things does provide two helpful insights to museums though. First of all, the museum-store is small; it is easy to see everything, and the “collection” is easy to curate. Secondly, The Museum of Useful Things has successfully increased its visitors by mixing education with consumerism as a form of entertainment. In fact, because the museum-store focuses on both the aesthetic and the function of a product, The Museum of Useful Things has succeeded in making ideas of design more accessible to the passing shopper. Furthermore, people will return in order to check what new stock/artifacts have come in. Museums might try experiment with brevity and with mixing education and other interests to sustain the interest of their audiences.

Okay… so maybe we can share.