In early November, I found myself in a lengthy queue at the Van Gogh gift shop in Amsterdam, patiently waiting to purchase a Pokémon ballpoint pen. This was one of the last items available in the store, as it was the second month of their collaboration with Pokémon and the demand for limited edition merchandise was unrelenting. Everything from T-shirts to notebooks to shoulder bags featuring Pikachu on the front had already been snatched up, leaving only prints and postcards behind the counter. Despite it being midday, the shop was so packed that the area had to be cordoned off and those trying to enter were turned away until the crowd thinned.
This had become a familiar scene for those attending and working at the event. From the beginning of their collaboration in September, which coincided with the museum’s 50th anniversary and aimed to introduce the Dutch artist’s work to new audiences, the Pokémon merchandise caused chaos as enthusiastic fans – and resellers – fought to get their hands on the most coveted items. However, the main culprit was a single product: a limited edition “Pikachu With Grey Felt Hat” trading card. As soon as it was released, the card sold out online, leaving desperate visitors to the gallery to battle it out in order to obtain one. Videos of the Pokémon frenzy quickly spread on Twitter (now called X), and later, the card was being sold on eBay for prices as high as $900. By mid-October, the card had been discontinued.
Can you describe your experience working there? “The initial week was not pleasant,” a staff member remembers. “It was extremely hectic, with many individuals attempting to visit four times a day just to obtain the card.” Designed for children between six and 12 years old, the card was given as a reward for completing a Pokémon scavenger hunt that involved studying the painter’s history through a collection of new Van Gogh-inspired Pokémon paintings, which were temporarily included in the exhibition.
According to the employee, in the morning, individuals were rushing to the store despite the limit of one item per person. They likened the atmosphere to that of a “theme park” rather than a museum, as 2,000 out of 5,500 tickets were solely for the card. Many individuals who arrived that day had to be refused entry.
“It’s been utter chaos,” another person explains. “What did people think was going to happen? You’re reviving something from the 90s that had a huge fanbase. I understand the concept, but it just doesn’t fit with Pokémon.”
To avoid overwhelming demand and maintain a positive experience, the trading card was swapped for a postcard. Additionally, a policy of one item per person was enforced to discourage resellers, and the exclusive merchandise was relocated from the ground floor gift shop to the first floor, requiring customers to queue. However, during my visit, the Pokémon Adventure treasure hunt leaflets were also out of stock and were said to be in the process of being reprinted. Fortunately, a staff member found one for me when I mentioned I was a journalist. The Van Gogh Museum later informed me that they had enough treasure hunt leaflets in both Dutch and English to last until the end of the collaboration, but my experience did not reflect this.
Regardless, the shortages and overcrowding contributed to a rise in disgruntled visitors. “Normally, we have two complaints a month, maybe,” says one staff member. “Most of the time it’s about a lot of people being here. [During the Pokémon exhibition] we had 12 a day. First, it was about the lines. And then [because] we didn’t hand out the cards any more … so they felt played that they bought a ticket and didn’t get something.”
The situation at the Van Gogh Museum improved after the trading card was removed. A staff member mentioned that the initial weeks drew the wrong type of crowd, but afterwards, only children came in and left satisfied with postcards. While some staff were unsure about labeling the collaboration as a complete success, one did acknowledge that the removal of the card allowed it to fulfill its original purpose as an educational experience.
According to them, the past few weeks have been quite fruitful. There has been a significant increase in the number of families participating in the treasure hunt. Even though the treasure hunt has ended, a regular art treasure hunt is still available and yesterday, we distributed around 50 of them, which is more than our usual amount of 20-30. Clearly, this strategy has been effective in attracting children.
These partnerships are highly beneficial. Museums and galleries have utilized games, such as MoMA’s renowned video game collection and the Imperial War Museum’s War Games Jam from last year, to draw in younger crowds. It is also logical for these collaborations to offer exclusive merchandise as an extra incentive for fans and to generate revenue. However, as I waited in line for my souvenir pen, I realized that museums must carefully consider their offerings from the start and plan for potential demand, especially when it involves adorable electric squirrels sporting Van Gogh hats.