Tips and suggestions for artists, courtesy of the American Made Alliance and Buyers Market of American Craft
By now, you have learned that one gift shop in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be restocked with all American-made merchandise.
You might want to propose a product for the museum’s “Price of Freedom” store.
How will you know if your current product lines might work for this specialty gift shop? Where would you begin if you wanted to design or customize a product line for the “Price of Freedom” store in the Smithsonian?
Study the opportunity, according to the Buyers Market staff and the American Made Alliance.
Here is one easy place to begin:
Take a good look at the Smithsonian’s public announcements about its decision.
Here is an excerpt from the official press release from March 9, 2011:
“The “Price of Freedom” museum store at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will offer only merchandise made in the United States beginning in early July. The store is located on the museum’s third floor next to the exhibitions “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” and “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” and carries merchandise related to the themes of these exhibitions. The store will include labels on the history of “made in America,” reflecting the museum curators’ research on the subject.”
Notice the valuable information revealed in this press release for any artist wishing to pitch a product to the Smithsonian’s buyers.
- The merchandise in the gift shop is “related to the themes” in two exhibitions.
This is your cue to pay a visit to the museum, if you can. If you live nearby, hop on the train or jog down to the Mall and take the time to steep yourself in the themes, artifacts and imagery of the named exhibitions. If you live too far away: Make the effort to view the Smithsonian’s online presentations.
- According to the press release: The museum curators’ research will influence the labeling of the products.
In other words: Historical accuracy will be very important. Would you expect any less from the nation’s premier museum of American history? So how does that apply to gift store products?
Taking History Home
The “Price of Freedom” gift store is long and narrow, a wedge of sales floor between exhibitions in the third-floor, East side wing of the National Museum of American History.
Prominently located behind the sales counter is a machine used to press dogtags for customers. Just beyond the counter is a wall devoted to contemporary books on military and presidential topics.
Opposite the books, and lining the rest of the store, are souvenir and gift products, mostly with presidential or military connections. There are replicas of military vehicles and model aircraft, baseball caps with the insignia of the branches of the military, toy weapons, replicas of military hats, reproduction White House teacups, and reproductions of historical paper currency and coins. There are tin whistles, busts of American leaders, and sets of toy soldiers wearing the uniforms of various wars. There are stuffed bears dressed in fatigues, and metal ornaments bearing military symbols. There are flags and neckties. They carry a few snack food products and several packs of history lesson cards, roughly the size of playing cards. (Very little is made in America, but based on recent news stories, that is what we expected to find. More on that later.)
Authenticity and Extending the Lesson
On the packaging, some replicas and reproductions provide details about their use or licensing of authentic military insignias or designs.
Also, throughout the store, a shopper finds small descriptive cards that further the museum’s lessons and connect the merchandise to the exhibitions.
For example, a card titled “Model Aircraft” provides a brief history of model aircraft used as advertising tools by aircraft manufacturers to sell their products in the 1920s.
The text on the card tells shoppers where to find the collections of model aircraft in various Smithsonian museums.
Finally, the card also notes: “All income from our sales supports the chartered educational purposes and activities of the Smithsonian Institution.”
The card titled “Presidential China” offers historical perspective. (Martha Washington gave away teacups from her own china sets to friends as tokens of affection).
Based on these actual examples, here are some suggestions:
– Think about “the story” that links your existing product to the exhibition. Use it in your promotions of your product.
– If you’re thinking about developing or customizing a product, seek inspiration from a theme, an artifact, or a story in one of the exhibitions.
– Make sure that your use of specific imagery is historically appropriate or accurate (for example, a quick Internet search will show you proper ways to depict the U.S. flag).
– Fact-check any quotations or references to history that you use: You can be sure that the Smithsonian will check behind you!
– Know your own history! Don’t restrict yourself to literal interpretations, replicas or reproductions. Throughout American history, wars and presidents have made significant impact on industries, including craft and handmade industries. You might have a product that helps tell one of these stories.
– Did you know that the official service seals of branches of the military are trademarked? To use them for commercial purposes, apply for permission. Here’s a handy Department of Defense website that will help you locate the proper authority.
- Keep in mind that for the “Price of Freedom” store, Smithsonian buyers are seeking products that they define as “souvenirs.”
Most of the merchandise seen in the store retails for less than $50. Don’t forget that the buyers likely will want to purchase in volume, to use the products in multiple stores and to promote related collections. Let’s go back to the press release again for details:
“The Smithsonian stores provide an opportunity for people to take memories of their museum visit home with them. The products offered are related to the artifacts, specimens and works of art in each museum. Smithsonian Enterprises strives to provide a selection of products at a variety of prices so there is something for everyone in its museum shops.”
Something for Everyone
When you’re inside the “Price of Freedom” gift store, the Smithsonian’s definition of “souvenir” looks pretty traditional: objects that are reminders or versions of artifacts and specimens in the collection.
Aside from a few posters, the reproduction china and small sculptures (busts), we observed nothing that might be called “art.”
However, that does not mean that art or craft is unwelcome — not if the Smithsonian truly wants to provide “something for everyone” and has the vision to see how art serves as a unique American souvenir.
It is the shared viewpoint of the American Made Alliance and the Buyers Market of American Craft that many U.S. studio artists and small art businesses can make souvenir and gift products that fit the themes of the exhibitions. This makeover of the “Price of Freedom” presents an opportunity.
One thing that we have going for us is that awesome American quality called ingenuity.
Yes, we sometimes color outside the lines: Artists are creative problem solvers as well as storytellers.
We’re positive that the genius of American artists can help enliven the Smithsonian stores, enhance history lessons — and even help improve sales.
Give us a chance.
Artists: Check back for more notes and observations from our visit to “The Price of Freedom” and “The American Presidency.”