From London to Milan, Sydney to Paris, Barcelona and beyond. We’ve seen the sights, we’ve had delights on many a foreign shore. Queued for an eternity to see some of the art and cultural world’s most precious treasures and touring exhibitions. I’ve sneaked an illicit photo here and there. And been reprimanded by the occasional security guard as a result. But wherever I am, I end up seduced by the gift shop.
Postcards, bookmarks, fridge magnets, books, children’s toys, giant umbrellas and t-shirts. V&A ceramic buttons, Buckfast Abbey Tonic Wine, Natural History Museum salad scoops. And the token, yet irrelevant chutneys, preserves and toffee bars, never ever made on site.
I have to buy something, be it a memento of the exhibition that I actually visited, or just a simple reminder of my day out. I find myself walking into an exhibition and making sure I’ve clocked the gift shop.
If you visit the National Portrait Museum, the Victoria & Albert or Somerset House (as mere examples) you will find dedicated book shops which have everything from exhibition related material, to travel, even how to interpret Haiku.
Westonbirt Arboretum near Bath is simply stunning with its seasonal offerings of flora and occasional fauna. We went to see the Japanese Maple in all its autumnal glory, following the map and trails. It was a beautiful April day and I was clicking away on my camera, but all the while noting where the gift shop was on the map. This is where I want to explore the need for gift shops to stock various re-branded bars of chocolates and fudge that not only have nothing to do with the site, but aren’t manufactured anywhere near the area.
Disappointment loomed within this gift shop because shelf after shelf of soap, lavender oil, children’s hand-crafted toys, tea, even the pottery and wood carvings – nothing was produced locally. Finally, a rack of postcards… No, I decided that my photos would look far better than anything that was for sale in this establishment. But I had to buy something because that is my downfall, sucked in by the lure of the gift shop. I settled for the peanut butter toffee adorned with a picture of a maple leaf.
On a bleak, cold day about an hour’s drive from Krakow is the hauntingly famous Auschwitz. Row after row of concrete windowless cabins, with nothing but the cold earth for flooring. Countless reminders of how hundreds and thousands of Jews were used as forced labour and taken to their death. It is like walking through a film set because we’ve all seen images recreated in memorable movies such as Schindler’s List. When it couldn’t possibly get any more depressing or emotional, there’s the gift shop. I’m curious – what could be for sale in the Auschwitz gift shop? Postcards with images of what I’ve just captured on my camera, but drearier, factual books (ok fair enough), posters of rusted barbed wire, candles – what could I possibly bring myself to purchase?
Again, I had to buy something so opted for four postcards choosing the most artistic images thinking that I would send one to each set of parents. Those same four postcards still remain in my postcard collection, as I just couldn’t think of anything to write on them …somehow ‘wish you were here’ or ‘having a swell time’ just didn’t fit the image.
I don’t feel guilty about my gift shop obsession, I embrace it, find pleasure from it, and also find it educational to see what souvenirs will be included each time I revisit a museum or gallery. For now, my obsession with V&A ceramic buttons finds me creating my little own little art projects. From sewing a button onto a top, or simply attempting artistic photos of my collection, perhaps these minor endeavours will encourage me to open my very own little gift shop in my very own London flat for visitors’ perusal.
I’ve learnt what I should stock.
And not to annoy the vigilant guards at the Picasso museum.