Bric-a-Brac and Indolence 4: Extremes

In the latest instalment of “why are you reviewing museum gift shops anyway?”, I managed to drag some of my friends around with me. This proved the opposite of productive, as Misha is deeply distracting and the lovely Fiona Hogarth (who will one day be famous for her fantastic textile print work, and I’m not only saying it because she gives me free samples and puts up with my terrible jokes) was so engrossed in the museum part of the Hunterian that we didn’t get to see much of the gift shop.

These visits ran to gift shops in the absolute extremities of scale, and in the tradition of shaggy dog stories and comedies everywhere, I shall begin with the grandiose.

I didn't actually go to both of these on the same day

The British Museum

 Number of gift shops: 4 (two large, one small, one book shop).

The British Museum is, of the gift shops I’ve reviewed so far, the most sprawling and grandiose. The book shop (which is actually smaller than the book section of the main gift shop, and which I only ever seem to find by getting lost) is stocked with books both relevant to the museum and generic Folio Society Editions of classic literature, but the main attraction as far as I was concerned after a long walk around the museum was the rather comfortable browsing seats in the corners.

Outside the bookshop, opposite the cloakroom, is the first of three gift shops. It is modest, if a little anaemic, and its primary focus is iconic British Museum branded goods – Rosetta Stone printed umbrella and so on – with some ornaments, souvenir cartouches, and no exhibition-specific or “swank” goods.

While in other museum gift shops so far on my bizarre pilgrimage have only segregated their “posh bit” to a section of the shop often containing merely jewellery and the odd bust, the British Museum takes this to its logical conclusion in the glorious Victorian pomp to which the great institutions of the city often owe their existence. Put simply: it doesn’t have “some” jewellery, it has several cabinets full. It doesn’t have “a few” busts, it has several shelves of them, and a full-body statue. There are rugs, jackets, perfumes (I rather liked the idea of solid state perfume presented in aged watch casings but alas none of the perfumes were to my taste), painted boxes, and the whole of the “posh” gift shop fairly reeks of people with money to waste. One day, when I am rich…

The main gift shop is intimidatingly large; it extends around most of the central column in the main court, and appears to contain most of the produce of several factories. There are entire walls of postcards of the permanent and temporary collections; a book section which is larger than the book shop (my pick was a large photo-heavy book about Lawrence of Arabia, of course,  but I was also tickled to find there was an entire book on indigo dye and on previous visits have picked up books on a diverse range of subjects including popular linguistics); two large sweets stands which I’m sure having nothing to do with the acquisitive nature of the British Empire towards other culture’s artefacts but which are very nice despite being overpriced; plates, bowls, frankincense, prayer beads and prayer mats which I assume were all associated with the current exhibition about the Hajj; and a children’s section which is larger than many museums’ entire gift shops.

The children’s section has some recognisable crossover with the children’s section in other museum gift shops, notably the apparently ubiquitous wooden swords (with which Misha and I had a brief but determined re-enactment of the cliff-top duel from The Princess Bride), and rather unusually features children’s clothing as well.

I’m beginning to speculate that it wouldn’t be entirely impossible to outfit an expedition to the North bloody Pole from the British Museum gift shops, but don’t quote me on that.

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

The museum itself is cunningly hidden upstairs

The other end of the scale is the Hunterian Museum gift shop; the museum itself is wholly fascinating if you, like me, like looking at bits of dead things in jars for ages. If you don’t it is intensely creepy. The gift shop is effectively an alcove by the entrance/exit full of the kind of things you can get in toy shops, with some of the college’s branded goods – surprisingly cheap silverware, scarves, etc – thrown in for good measure.

The totality of my review of the Hunterian Museum’s gift shop is that on my way out (the place was closing, and Fiona and I were being ushered swiftly towards the exit) I spotted a book which looked very interesting and gloriously specialist. It was A History of Limb Amputation, and it was priced at £100.

Therefore this is my review of the Hunterian Museum gift shop: they sell A History of Limb Amputation, and it costs £100, and this tickles me right down to the very organs they have floating in jars just beyond that shelf.


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