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Exit This Year Through the Museum Gift Shop

A few months ago, I entered the grand marble foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time since the pandemic began. Being inside the museum was like riding a bike, in that my body instinctively remembered where it wanted to go. And where it wanted to go, among other places, was straight to the gift shop. Standing between an array of Costume Institute postcards and a table groaning under the weight of lacquered trays and catalogues raisonnés and Art Deco chandelier earrings and embossed notepads and desk calendars and enamel lapel pins and leather journals and costumey amulets, I found myself having a consumerist strain of Stendhal syndrome. (Spend-all syndrome?) It had something to do with the fact that almost all of the items were appealing and none were even close to necessary. After the better part of two years shopping very little IRL, the stagy superfluousness of the Met shop jolted me right back into a state of pure purchasing pleasure.

The truth is, it’s not just the Met shop or the MOMA Design Store that scratch the itch for me, as impeccably curated as those stores are. In fact, the more obscure or hyper-focussed a museum is, the more fun its gift shop tends to be. Take me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, in Santa Fe, with its gaucho hats and hammered silver alphabet jewelry. Take me to the Heinz History Center, in Pittsburgh, with its pierogi earrings and Yinzer stickers. Take me to the Tenement Museum, with its bagel-shaped salt and pepper shakers (possibly the greatest of all New York museum stores). Although each shop shares its sensibility—and its profits—with the larger institution it is attached to, many of the smaller and funkier museum shops stuff their shelves with eccentric trinkets that echo the museum’s aesthetic more in spirit than in substance. (See, for instance: this set of disembodied-leg “herb markers”, from the macabre Mütter Museum, in Philadelphia, or a hand-stitched leather goblet, from the Hampton Court Palace, in London.) A good museum shop feels like a cross between a local flea market, a midnight spin through Etsy, a mall novelty kiosk, a corner bookseller, and a lucid dream. This gift guide is perhaps coming a bit too close to the holidays to be maximally useful, but you can think of it as a springboard to shopping for yourself and others in the years to come. A note: most great museum shops are now fully online, but hunting in person is half the fun.

Prices listed below are accurate as of publication but may fluctuate over time.

Think Surprises, Not Souvenirs

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: nobody wants a commemorative shot glass, or a rubber fridge magnet, or a sweatshirt that blares out the name of a hoary nonprofit institution like an item of sports memorabilia. When you are shopping at a museum store, you must resist the siren call of logoed knickknacks. These items transmit either “I was there” (which, as the gift giver, you are already telegraphing implicitly) or “I support this place” (which, great, but you want your gifts to signal joy, not virtue). When it comes to museum gifting, the more random the better. A toothpick-holder bird ($10) from MOMA that has deranged mid-century-hostess flair. A pair of real-deal aviator sunglasses with SkyTec lenses ($248), from the Smithsonian. Moon Chalk ($34). A Chris Ofili tea towel ($36). A campfire harmonica ($13.30), from the Galt Museum. Coffee-and-beignet socks ($22.50). A secret-capsule necklace ($128), from the International Spy Museum. Egg-shaped maracas ($18), from the New Museum. A huge Judy Chicago “goddess figure” candle ($100), from the de Young, that is so pretty you won’t want to light it. A limited-edition Met x Harlem Candle Co. candle ($65), inspired by Seneca Village, that you absolutely will want to light, in order to fill a room with the scent of wild thyme and cedar. A quilt-inspired vinyl kitchen mat ($42), from the American Folk Art Museum. Mint-julep-scented soap ($6.50), from the Kentucky Derby Museum. A make-your-own beaded beast ($18). And, finally, a yodelling pickle toy ($13.95), from the National Mustard Museum, in Wisconsin, which comes with a disclaimer: “The yodel goes on for a full 11 seconds. For those with no sense of humor, it will feel like an eternity. For those with a classical music background, it will seem even longer.”

Long Live the Novelty T-Shirt

T-shirts are fair game—in fact, they can make great gifts—but they should be either beautiful to behold or breathtakingly inane. Some winners: minimalist cow-skull scribbles ($24), from the O’Keeffe Museum. A T. rex rides the B train ($24.99), from the American Museum of Natural History. A trippy, limited-edition Ambar Del Moral tee ($35), from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in the faded hue of Grey Poupon. Speaking of that condiment, shirts don’t get much Dad-jokier than the Mustard Museum’s “Squeeze the Day, Carpe Dijon” ($20). A “Rock Em Rats” shirt ($28), from Meow Wolf, that is just stoner-y enough. One reminiscent of a Virgil Abloh sight gag ($34.95), from PAMM in Miami, that deconstructs the shirt itself as an object of desire. This N.Y.C. schmatte ($24.95), from the Museum of the City of New York, might be the only Big Apple tee that retains a slight whiff of cool. A Tammy Wynette muscle tank ($60), from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A cheeky, candy-pink reminder from the comic-book artist Nicole Hollander that “Lust Makes You Stupid” ($32). A whimsical Charlie Hustle x Nelson-Atkins tee collab ($32). A New Bedford Whaling Museum shirt ($15), with a groany nautical pun. A banana-yellow Velvet Underground band tee ($25), from the Andy Warhol Museum. A cherry-red kid’s “Design Critic” tee ($20), for the tiny Ada Louise Huxtable in your life. A celebration of the stinkiest flower ($18.95), from the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and of pink orchids ($18), from the N.Y.B.G. And, for Nederlandophiles, a neon-blue shirt emblazoned with the quote “Life is like a croquette” ($33.93), from Paul Verhoeven’s 1980 film, “Spetters,” from the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam; as the museum itself admits, “you can’t get more Dutch than this.”

Blanket Bingo

Is a library a museum? While you ponder that question, feast your eyes upon this cult-popular blanket that looks like a giant library card ($115). The blanket is sold out for the year, but it will return in February, just in time for snuggle season. If you must snuggle up now, I’m smitten with this limited-edition Micaela Cianci throw ($135) that the artist made for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Oh, Me? I’m Wearing the Louvre

You don’t have to be Prue Leith from “The Great British Bake Off” to enjoy a chunky necklace (though hers are iconic), nor do you need an excuse to start dressing like you blew your entire last paycheck at the Frick. For many of the most stylish people I know, museums are a jeweller of choice and a secret trove of boxy jackets and bed clothes. If I could fill my closet with garments from any one museum store, I’d choose the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a paragon of thoughtful curation. The online shop contains gorgeous pieces such as this orange shibori dress ($259.70), from the designer Yadvi Agarwal, and this asymmetrical cotton top ($179.79). This cropped, quilted millefleur jacket ($219.75) looks fresh as a daisy, while this hand-smocked blouse ($466.13), from the British designer Hannah Cawley, is giving pilgrim couture. The museum’s acrylic floral pins ($11.32 each) might make you believe in brooches again, and this oversized tea-party necklace ($93.23) is delectably mad. This Rosalba Galati spike bracelet ($79.91) is not only striking but can double as a self-defense tool. These egg earrings ($33.29) are as ornate and twee as a Fabergé. There’s a spacey Bowie-homage pin ($46.61), a silk evening bag with tassels ($99.88) that smacks of the Gilded Age, and a canvas book bag ($133.18) that looks like it leapt out of “Brideshead Revisited.” You could blow your entire budget at the V&A, but there are wearable finds all over: this sparkly lariat ($328.61), from the Louvre, inspired by a rose in a Rubens painting. A rhinestone microphone ($12.99), from the Grand Ole Opry. A set of pajamas in “routemaster moquette” plaid ($79.94), from the London Transport Museum. A brass, Herman Melville-inspired cuff bracelet ($75). The most charming terrazzo arch earrings ($143.95). This raspberry-flower dress ($70), from the Historic New Orleans Collection, sourced from an antique French Quarter pattern. A Dusen Dusen robe ($132), from MOMA, that channels the fizzy glee of Pop art. A statement necklace made out of piano wire ($75), from the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. Edward Hopper “Railroad Sunset” pajamas ($190), from the Whitney. A traditional cherry-blossom yukata ($60), from Kyoto, via the Smithsonian. A throwback MA-1 jacket ($49.95), from the Museum of Flight. Chandelier earrings ($250) that look like creamsicle jellyfish, from Cooper Hewitt, and blue chalcedony drops ($79) with an Undine Spragg aesthetic, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. An esoteric bucket hat ($25), from the Guggenheim. A jaunty beret ($20), from the Milwaukee Art Museum. A lacy white, Regency-era nightgown ($53.29), from the Jane Austen Centre. Skip the glut of Frida Kahlo-branded stuff and instead go for these shuttlecock-esque tassel earrings ($60), from LACMA, which are based on a pair that she actually wore. This brooch from a Flemish painting ($125) may or may not contain the soul of a haunted heiress, while this pearl amulet ($40), inspired by an ancient mummy portrait at the Getty, is equally pretty and creepy.