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Bric-a-Brac and indolence

After a recent and, some might say, deeply self-indulgent excursion to the gift shop at the National Gallery to buy some hand cream that doesn’t seem to be available anywhere else, I got into a conversation with a friend in the gift shop at the British Museum. The general gist of it was “When I am rich, because obviously I will automatically become rich selling cheap jewellery and books that  no one reads, I am going to buy everything from museum gift shops”. We digressed into listing our favourite museum gift shops, and it occurred to me that this would be a pleasantly middle-class and Asperger’s-y thing to post about: a little review of museum gift shops in London.

Well, I say little. I asked around my friends for suggestions of places to review because I was sure I’d forgotten a few, and discovered that London has a lot of museums and tourist attractions. I mean, I always knew that because the place is heaving with tourists from dawn ’til dusk almost every day of the year, but I’d always just presumed they came with the place, like rats and buses that you don’t want and everything else that gets in the way on Oxford Street.

Apparently we’re absolutely rife with gift-shop-filled places and this little diversion is going to take quite a long time! After making my life-changing decision I completely failed to leave the house on time and so the first day is only two places:

From the British Library to the Wellcome Collection

The British Library

The British Library

Number of gift shops: 2, next to each other. One is exhibition-specific, the other general.

The British Library, as one might expect, is primarily concerned with books, although they also sell a range of book/library-related memorabilia and trinkets, notebooks, books on CD, and rather mysteriously, candles in tins.

They have a wide and beautiful selections of post and greetings cards (I tripped and bought four, and would have bought more were I not the kind of stony brassic broke that makes my wallet curl up and whimper in my pocket if I try to open it), and in the exhibition shop often a range of home goods such as tea towels, crockery, and “trinkets”, most of which are quite high quality (and, unfortunately, price: even the Christmas treet ornaments were £7.99 each).

The bookshop itself is impressive, and as one would expect from the British Library, carries a broader and more interesting range of books than the average Waterstones! It is however also more costly than the average Waterstones, so if you only want the content of an unusual book I’d suggest Quinto (if you’re in London) or Abebooks or, God forbid, Amazon or Barnes & Noble (neither of whom need any more traffic from me).

The area that the British Library bookshop/giftshop really excels in is books as objects of art. There are no ugly or badly-designed covers in the entire place, and many editions I’ve seen in there I’ve not seen anywhere else; they have several exquisite special bindings of various classic books and Shakespearean folios which any bibliophile would be proud to show off (especially in the age of Kindles, where shelf space is growing again).

Service is polite and reserved, as one would hope for in a library; a good place to pick up gifts for older relatives or more studious younger ones (there is one product which allows younger readers to keep a record of things they’ve read and what they thought of them, which I’d have loved as a book-devouring child continually entering library competitions…)

The Wellcome Trust Collection

The Wellcome Trust Collection

Number of gift shops: Nominally 1.

Perplexingly, the Wellcome Trust Collection’s gift shop is also a bookshop with a few gifts in it, and not a proprietary bookshop either but a Blackwell. Perhaps because of this, the selection of books – while leaning towards the content of the Collection (History of Medicine is a dedicated and interesting section), and having an area for books related to the specific exhibitions currently hosted in the building – is quite often unconnected to its location.

While it’s nice to be able to buy, say, Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You at the drop of a hat, it’s of only loose relevance to the Collection and there were other titles I spotted which were even less closely connected.

Gifts here also stroll away from the usual branded miscellany of pens and badges and the like, and the very enticing model skulls and bone-printed socks, into the arbitrary. Useful though book lamps and “posh word search” books are, they’re again not really relevant.

That said, there is also an intriguing and enticing display of medical and biology inspired jewellery of quite unique forms for those with deeper pockets, and … a surprising amount of moustache-related goods.

Stay tuned for further museum gift shop reviews.

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2 Responses

  1. The Wellcome Collection has been on my must-visit list for ages, and I think “bone-printed socks” just pushed it into the top priority spot. Also, the café there is a known hangout of celeb nerds like Goldacre and Ince.

    • They come in white on black (which I bought from Sock Dreams myself) and black on white, and I think they may have the musculature ones too although they’re £13 a pair. The cafe does look nice, though. And smells nice! I’ve yet to go there to see the Collection – it was shut on Monday – and if you’re up for tolerating my lack of medical knowledge I’d like to accompany?

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