Mugs, postcards and trinkets were the stock in trade of museum shops until they got the plot. The Victoria and Albert Museum led the way, offering cultured visitors magnificent merchandise — once their appetites had been whetted by a tour of the splendid galleries.
Eventually, the V&A was able to commission international architect Eva Jiricna to design its new, bigger shop. The glass store — tall as a cathedral — now sparkles with limited-edition designer chairs, bed linen, enamelled and jewelled replicas of items from the museum's collection and all manner of gorgeous surprises.
Other museum shops soon followed the V&A's example. Homeware now sits alongside the books, and specially commissioned items from designers feature during current shows — all of it also available online.
The Design Museum has some beautiful artist-designed rugs with styles ranging from the cutting-edge to favourite well-made classics, often by English makers using traditional techniques. Goods linked to exhibitions form an expanding market. For its Pompeii show the British Museum has oil lamps made to a Roman pattern and a couple of stunning busts. Some museums offer blinds or prints copied from their vast collections, which can transform a room.
Culture and shopping
The V&A: it's still ahead of the pack. As well as unusual glassware and ceramics the V&A now has exclusives such as the Darwin chair in walnut and ash for £600, or bed linen such as the Chinese Porcelain set, in fresh white and florals, an online exclusive. The V&A also offers prints on demand (vandashop.com).
The Design Museum: limited-edition Node rugs by various designers are £950 and are offered alongside a beautifully simple Fia carafe (£70) by Nina Jobs, and a folding mezzaluna herb knife for £18.95 (designmuseum shop.com).
The British Museum: find a bust for your ancestral hall, some based on the museum's Pompeii exhibition (such as Thalia, in hand-patinated marble for £375), or a pretty Iznik tin plate at only £6.95, delightful for a Persian picnic. Or how about unusual porcelain Carp teacups inspired by a Parisian tea salon, £40 a set? The Pompeii fresco mug is pretty, and you can buy amazing prints on demand based on the museum's stupendous collection (britishmuseumshoppingonline.org).
The Natural History Museum: shop here for the endearingly quirky. Porcelain hand-screened with human skulls is surprisingly beautiful and rather like work by Italian classic designer Fornasetti, from £10, while the Sardine Run goods are stylish (jug £16, coasters £15 a set). With gruesome humour you can chop vegetables on a human anatomy chopping board, male or female, £20. Children and adults alike will adore a hand-painted panda or tiger egg cup for £10. You won't find these things easily elsewhere (nhmshop.co.uk).
Buckingham Palace: invest in some wonderful porcelain. The Chelsea range, an 18th-century fresh botanical design loved by the Queen Mother, is gorgeous (salad plate £19, milk jug £35). Russian coffee cups, in a harlequin set of six, in Fabergé colours gilded with 24-carat gold, make an excellent wedding present at £195. Or for well-heeled cuisine, try a Buckingham Palace apron or oven mit, for £15.95 or £9.95 (royalcollection.org/shop).
Sir John Soane Museum: it's early days for the new shop, which is already eclectic in its offerings and expanding. There's a growing range of plaster casts, unusual bookends, and a charming pewter ammonite box designed by Glover & Smith for £19.95 (soane.org/shop).