An ode to the museum gift shop - consumer capitalism that works

They are often derided, but I always enjoy taking a piece of these experiences home with me

A visitor shops for pop art at the M+ Museum's gift shop in Hong Kong. AFP
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Gustav Klimt mugs, Hokusai refrigerator magnets and Rothko mousepads. A place brimming with the most mundane paraphernalia decorated with some of the most beautiful and important art, the museum gift shop is a magical space, one that lies at the intersection of creativity and profitability.

A frequent reaction to the gift shop is the lament that a museum uses the art it houses to shift “tat” or knick-knacks. The fact that you often have to go through this retail space before you can actually exit the venue is a bugbear for many, especially those with children.

But not me. I absolutely love a good gift shop. I'd even say it's often the highlight of my visit. You might well say it's childish, and that seeing the art and artefacts in person is so much more interesting. But you’d be wrong.

I’ve come to appreciate that, after a very fulfilling journey through a museum, it’s quite nice to take a small piece of that experience back home. Even a small keychain can serve as a lifelong reminder, especially when the museum is in a country that I might not visit again.

Ever since the release of elusive street artist Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the concept has been mired in the idea that commercialising and selling art is cheap and exploitative.

But art consumption is already in a bizarre, commercial space. Choosing to opt out of purchasing trinkets because it might seem uncouth is contradictory, the art world is uncouth to begin with.

Artists create beautiful expressions of their ideas and feelings, but once that piece of art is out in the world, people are deciding how to make money out of it.

I’ve made peace with the idea that art has gone past the point of no return for consuming it morally and appropriately. Instead I’d rather just buy the shirt with the famous painting printed on it, looking quite cool in the process.

And museum gift shops have come a long way in recent years. While the usual souvenirs and prints are still available, now you can find all manner of things to buy. Change your look with a cap or decorate your wall with a skateboard (sans wheels).

Visitors to some of the world's most famous museums can look forward to buying an objet d’art that would not be available anywhere else.

The shops have become some of the most interesting places to shop for unique items, ones that have been created with enough attention and care to warrant a purchase.

The Prado in Madrid, MoMA in New York and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo boast some of the most interesting and exciting gift shops, for example.

Detractors can remain firmly in their corner and scoff, but if you choose to embrace the museum gift shop you open yourself up to a glorious world of high art made accessible.

Besides, who wouldn’t want a kitchen apron with Van Gogh's Starry Night printed on it?

Published: March 01, 2024, 6:02 PM