Bric-a-Brac and Indolence 6: South Kensington Museumorama Part 1

In typical fashion, the visit to Museum Central – otherwise known as South Kensington – was truncated by the mutual inability of the visitors to get out of bed at a reasonable hour, and the Natural History Museum, with its profligacy of gift shops, had to be postponed so that the lovely Holly Yagoda and I could tramp to the National Film Theatre. I was off to see Blue Velvet, which has had quite enough reviews on the internet without me adding to them, and to imbibe cocktails; Holly was mostly tugged along in my ranty wake like a good-natured and vastly more intelligent … thing that follows along in your wake.

This isn't quite the route we took

 The Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road

Number of Gift Shops: 2 (one general, one bookshop)

(Please attribute the critical tone of this review to the shop repeatedly relieving me of a lot of my money).

The V&A’s main gift shop is rather similar to the posh bit of the British Museum’s gift shop colony: it assumes a particular age group, gender and social class in its clientele and adheres to it. Even more so than the British Museum’s posh bit, it is possible to acquire almost an entire outfit from the gift shop, including gloves. A token effort has been made towards a children’s section, but its contents are not chosen with children in mind, rather with what might appeal to someone buying for their infrequently-seen grandchildren. Or, to put it another way, the kind of stuff I got as a kid and then discreetly sold at car boot sales to buy My Little Ponies.

The effort toward providing something for every pocket has primarily gone on two walls of postcards and some cheaper jewellery, but the V&A gift shop I think mostly views itself as an additional gallery where the display is for sale, more than it views itself as a shop.

There is some very beautiful and very expensive jewellery available which is clearly closely inspired by the collection, and my wallet might well have been bothered by either the exquisite patterned silk ties or the cake were they not quite so pricy.

More than anywhere else I’ve visited in this little series so far, the V&A gift shop is a slave to seasonal displays and integrating collections/exhibitions; it’s well worth visiting in the Christmas season for decorations and delicacies – always provided, of course, that your bank balance is looking healthy.

The book shop is, rather surprisingly, more focussed on the 20th/21st Century in art, design, and fashion than on earlier elements of their history, although there are some good books on architecture, and an enclave of books on Islamic art which cover a wider time period. The book shop does also boast a shelf stack of books published for or by the museum, and those are well worth examining.

The Science Museum

No dinosaurs, but ASTRONAUTS

 Number of Gift Shops: 1

Though just across the road, this shop assumes the inverse demographic of customer to the V&A. It is for families, catering both to children (and children above all) and the overgrown children who parent them. There is a certain amount of trendy, stylish kitchen gadgetry and gadgetry in general – the kind of amusements found on – but the majority of the shop is given over to the kinds of things (robots, spy games, bouncy balls, glow-in-the-dark everything, noise machines) that make a superannuated child like me crow “cool!” and try to play with it. Holly and I entertained ourselves with bouncy balls full of swirling glitter and flashing lights for a little longer than is strictly permissible for adults who aren’t on ecstasy.

Although there are some very impressive and possibly high-end (I know nothing) telescopes available for sale, the average price is much lower than at the V&A; that said, the top-cost product here clocks up a cool grand out of your bank account. It is a ring made of cast silver which replicates the molecular structure of a diamond.

Book-wise, their selection is nearly bisected between children and adults, and covers some fascinating and often specialised areas! There are no Folio Society editions here, of course, as it seems science books don’t merit the same level of lavish binding and collectors’ item reverence, even Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.


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