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Museum stores worldwide are becoming increasingly sophisticated, carrying a broader range of unusual, often high-end merchandise than in the past. “[They have] become far more professional in the way they’re run, with more paid staff, fewer volunteers and better-quality products more in tune with the museum’s mission and exhibits,” says Andrew Andoniadis, a museum-store consultant based in Portland, Oregon.
The shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, has collaborated with designers like Zandra Rhodes, Yohji Yamamoto and Kate Sheridan in recent years to offer exclusive clothing and fragrances, while the store at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago works closely with artists and designers whose products it sells.
Mary Bloom, a retail consultant in Dallas, who helped the Nasher Sculpture Center there set up its shop, believes museum stores have become destinations. “They’ve become a tremendous resource for people to buy good things,” she says. “If a museum shop is good, it stays on its own mission. People who travel all over the world want unique things. They want a piece that has a story.”
Others agree. “A good museum shop has objects that are useful and tend to reflect the content of its exhibitions,” says Allison Rodman, communications manager of the Armory Show, an annual contemporary and modern art fair in New York, and a former summertime staffer at the Museum of Modern Art store. Among her favorite museum-shop purchases is an eraser, sold at a Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, which resembled the massive blocks of lard Beuys had created for the exhibit.
The two most popular categories of merchandise sold in museum shops are books and jewelry, the latter, in part, because women represent almost two-thirds of all museum-goers, according to Andoniadis. And online sales are rising in popularity among museum retailers. Some American shops sell to customers overseas, as do shops abroad, like the Victoria and Albert’s.
Whether you buy online or offline from a museum store, chances are good you will purchase something authentic and singular that gives you a sense of place. The Brooklyn Museum, which recently expanded its retail space, has significantly increased offerings by established and emerging Brooklyn artisans and designers. And the shop at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which specializes in Native American art, generally sells only items handmade by and purchased directly from artists.
Here are ten of our favorite shops, both domestic and international, that are perfect for browsing and buying.