Products with a Purpose: A Museum Store on a Mission

May 28, 2020

By Andrew VanDerZanden

While generic souvenirs and tchotchkes can be best-sellers in museum stores, they do little to educate visitors and further the institutional mission. At the helm of the Oregon Historical Society Museum Store, Manager of Merchandise Operations Andrew VanDerZanden aims to make history fun, engaging, and educational, through developing custom products with a purpose.

When I became the Manager of Merchandise Operations in September 2018, I was excited to take on many new projects and tasks; product development was not one of them. Early in my tenure at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), I led the creation of three product lines featuring images in the OHS Research Library’s collections. The notecards featuring images of Kiser Photo Co. hand-colored photographs did not sell particularly well — and, they suffered from a typographical error that attributed the product to the “Oregon Historical Historical Society.” Customers met my following efforts, a travel journal and a poster, with resounding yawns. I learned many lessons from these experiences as well as developed some reservations about making more custom products.

Backside of Kiser Photo Co. notecard
An early product development typographical fail that attributed a custom notecard to a very historical institution, the “Oregon Historical Historical Society,” gave me trepidations at re-entering the world of custom merchandise.

My mentor, Lilia Villasenor, reached out to me after my promotion and encouraged me to attend the Las Vegas Market and Museum Store Association Forward 2019, a national convention, early the next year. I was able to attend thanks to scholarships from both organizations, which dramatically changed my perspective and attitude. Andrew Andoniadis of Andoniadis Retail Services (essentially the godfather of the museum store) made presentations at both, which included discussions on the importance of custom products for museum stores. Generic souvenirs, tchotchkes, and dust collectors usually are best-sellers in museum stores, but they fail to further the mission of the museum. I quickly converted to this new religion and zealously searched for opportunities to introduce new products into the OHS Museum Store that would engage and educate our visitors.

Andrew VanDerZanden and Squatch at the Las Vegas Market, January 2019.
Along with meeting fantastic vendors, artists, and “the godfather of the museum store,” Andrew Andoniadis, I also befriended Squatch, the official market mascot.

I came across my first custom candidate in Las Vegas when admiring the do whimsyTM products available through Artistic Reflections. The artist cleverly used the names of notable Oregon “products” to fill in the outline of the state. Inspired, I soon discovered that I could customize the art, and began brainstorming a list of people, places, and events that I felt reflected the great diversity of Oregon’s history.

Knowing that I could not incorporate the entire lexicon of Oregon history, I started paring down the list keeping four questions in mind:

  1. Is the term one that a customer can find on The Oregon Encyclopedia?
  2. Is this something that a museum visitor may encounter in one of our exhibitions?
  3. Does the term pique curiosity?
  4. Does the final list represent as many different aspects of Oregon’s history as possible, from our vast geography to our state’s diverse peoples?

I submitted the final list of terms to the artist, and the first draft of the design was a great start. Along with the art, I received feedback from the artist questioning one of the chosen words — stripping. Did we mean “strip mining,” perhaps? We did not — those who have spent time on The Oregon Encyclopedia may have come across the essay on Stripping in Oregon. Now unsure if this term should be included (would this term interest shoppers as intended, or turn them off the product?), I decided to share the mock-up with co-workers and my friends on Facebook. This wider group of reviewers encouraged me to leave the term but pointed out other words that they felt should be replaced, adjusted, or added.

Amy Platt and Eliza Canty-Jones were especially helpful as I looked to replace problematic entries such as wy’east. I had included wy’east as a way of acknowledging a perceived Indigenous name for Mt. Hood. After re-reading “Four Deaths: The Near Destruction of Western Oregon Tribes and Native Lifeways, Removal to the Reservation, and Erasure from History” in the Fall 2014 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, I learned that the white author of Bridge of the Gods, Frederic Homer Balch, likely invented the term. Looking for a replacement, I remembered reading a previous Oregon Historical Quarterly article co-authored by David G. Lewis, “Ourigan: Wealth of the Northwest Coast” that argued the word Oregon derived from the Indigenous word ooligan. After this switch and some other adjustments, the attractive and educational art was ready for printing on t-shirts, tea towels, and reclaimed wood.

Oregon Encyclopedia Custom Word Art product line at the Oregon Historical Society Museum Store.
The final “Oregon Encyclopedia Custom Word Art” product line features the design emblazoned on tote bags, tea towels, t-shirts, and wood blocks, all which will enliven your home with a touch of whimsy and Oregon history!

At Museum Store Association Forward 2019, I had the pleasure of meeting sales representative Sara Richards with Judge Sampson. I sought her out at the conference after having received a magnet featuring the art of illustrator Julia Gash, represented by Judge Sampson, in my swag bag. Customized to the desire of the client, her cheery and enthusiastic art seemed like an excellent way to expand the reach of Oregon’s history.

Pulling again from The Oregon Encyclopedia, I created a Google Map to show some of the places, events, and symbols that I hoped to see in the art. I mixed familiar scenes, such as Crater Lake and the Columbia River, with stories customers may not know (yes – Julia was even able to illustrate “blasted blubber” in a nod to the Florence Whale Explosion).

Still of KATU News footage of the Florence Whale Explosion, 1970.
One of my favorite stories from Oregon’s history is the infamous 1970 Florence Whale Explosion, captured in glorious detail by KATU News. Reporter Paul Linnman narrated the moment best, with his alliterative description, “the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”

Since Richards is from the East Coast and Gash is a Londoner, I had the opportunity to share some remedial Oregon history with them (so they understood why I insisted on oxen pulling a covered wagon and not horses). Gash did a magnificent job and after some minor tweaks, we were selling coffee mugs, magnets, and more, featuring her delightful illustrations of maraschino cherries, the Pendleton Round-up, and View-Master. This new line serves as my response to anyone who gripes that history is boring and is nothing more than the memorization of dates, names, and places. Thanks to skilled artists such as Gash, history can be bright, fun, and even a bit whimsical.

Julia Gash custom illustrated Oregon history product line.
On your next visit to the OHS Museum Store, a fixture filled with products featuring Julia Gash’s custom illustrated depiction of Oregon history will greet you.

These are just the OHS Museum Store’s first two new lines of products designed to bring Oregon history home. They are conversation starters, reminders of visits to our museum or research library, statements in support of history, and most definitely geek-chic. Thanks to the positive responses from the initial attempts (and no typos to be found!), I am eager to continue working with creative people to develop more products with a purpose — and sharing them with you on your next visit to the OHS Museum Store.

Andrew VanDerZanden’s Other Posts

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