Picks

Ten Totally Unique Gifts From Little Museum Gift Shops

Tinware! Salvador Dali cocktail napkins! A cowboy coffeepot!

A bracelet, candle, and vase from a museum shop.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Last year, on a trip to the Winterthur Museum and Garden in Winterthur, Delaware, I bought so much apple butter and knickknacks at the gift shop that I asked my companion with genuine alarm whether he thought we had enough room in the trunk of the rental car. I love a good museum gift shop, and the smaller the museum the better! Forget the Met Store; little museums need love too, and many of the country’s 15,000 house museums rely heavily on gift-shop sales to pad increasingly thin operational budgets.

It’s true that many museum shops deal primarily in things like posters and baseball caps, and while I have a soft spot for classic souvenirs (the number of commemorative coffee mugs I own is one I would prefer not to disclose on the public internet), plenty of institutions also offer housewares, jewelry, and toys that are genuinely covetable. Items on this list come from museums devoted to individual artists, states, and time periods, and the wares in their shops are specifically designed to evoke the spirit of the collections. With the holiday season upon us once more, here are 10 items sourced from museum gift shops that will let you play curator to everyone on your list.

Rodeo Ranchware Coffee Pot (Autry Museum of the American West)

Imagine: a lone cowboy preparing his solitary breakfast over a fire. He takes a long sip of hot coffee and stares out over the horizon, his furrowed brow asking a question only the land can answer. Anyway, this coffeepot is great because you can enjoy your java like a mythical cowboy of the Old West, but also, it works on regular, non-campfire stoves.

Rodeo Ranchware Coffee Pot

Immigrant Foods Cocktail Tray (Lower East Side Tenement Museum)

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is famous for its LES Food Tour, in which visitors learn that basically every good snack exists in America because of hardworking immigrants who brought their delicious foods to New York City. Serve pickles, pretzels, dumplings, or cannolis on this tray and recite facts from the Wikipedia page of each dish.

Immigrant Foods Cocktail Tray

Spirit of 1776 Toy Drum (Museum of the American Revolution)

Give this to a child whose parents you wish to annoy. Insist you’re just trying to foster wholesome, inclusionary patriotism and an interest in the material culture of Revolution-era America.

Spirit of 1776 Toy Drum

Assorted Tinware (Old Sturbridge Village) 

Is there anything more fun than a living history village? Churning butter! Taking jokey pictures of your loved ones in the stocks! Mountains of candy, except it all tastes like molasses! Learning about the ways in which life on a New England farm in the 1830s was never-ending toil ending only in the sweet embrace of heaven! It is my belief that there is not, which is why anything from Old Sturbridge Village’s on-site tin shop is an ideal gift. At the high end, the Sunburst Lantern would look incredible on a wintry night in. For a more affordable option, a few mugs make a nice alternative to the copper Moscow Mule sets that have long dominated barscapes.

A tin cup.

Cocktail Napkins (Salvador Dali Museum) 

These affordable Surrealist napkins would make a great stocking stuffer and/or vehicle for eating leftover pigs in a blanket, the most Surreal party food, in bed.

Cocktail napkins.

Monster of Ravenna Candle (Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia) 

The Mütter Museum shop has lots of fun stuff—a cookie cutter in the shape of conjoined twins, a plush stuffed colon, a custom fragrance meant to evoke the scent of old (and possibly haunted) libraries. My pick is this candle based on a description of a monster from the diary of a 16th-century apothecary. Don’t worry—this one’s scentless.

Monster of Ravenna Candle

Mariner Cuff Bracelet (New Bedford Whaling Museum)

I once proudly showed off a new pair of earrings, purchased at a museum shop that shall go unnamed here, only to be told by multiple people that I looked and sounded like a wind chime. I still refuse to take that as anything other than a compliment, but I guarantee no one will say such rude things about this bracelet, which is very elegant. As a bonus, it’ll give you something to add to the conversation when people start (annoyingly) talking about Moby Dick at parties!

Mariner Cuff Bracelet

Glass & Wood Vase (Georgia O’Keefe Museum)

Yes, many art-museum stores stock prints of famous paintings with dubiously sourced inspirational quotes set into a floral border. Many of them also stock pieces by up-and-coming artists and designers meant to evoke not just the art contained within the museum’s galleries but also the lives and spirits of the artists, like this vase, sculpted in equal measure by man and nature. I won’t protest if you want to write an inspirational quote on the card!

Glass and wood vase.

Assorted Civil War–Era Reproduction Prints (African-American Civil War Museum)

Tired: Making jokes about how much dads love Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

Wired: Framing prints of black soldiers fighting for the Union and handing them out to everyone on your list, regardless of gender or parenting status.

Civil War prints of black Union soldiers

Chikuno Charcoal Cube Air Freshener (Noguchi Museum)

The best gifts are fancy versions of really boring household necessities, and this air freshener from the Long Island City, New York, museum dedicated to the work of artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi is a real star of the genre. Per the museum store’s website, the cube “works best in a small enclosed space such as refrigerators & closets,” which is nice way to suggest that even someone prone to forgetting to clean out her fridge (like me) might aspire to museumlike tidiness.

Chikuno Charcoal Cube Air Freshener