I n museum-heavy New Haven, museum gift shops are a given. And if you’re a-givin’? They’re a gift.
Donna Wardle, overseer of the New Haven Museum’s small but scrappy gift shop, says its nostalgic local bent makes it a popular stop for folks who want to bid someone moving out of the city a fond farewell. A poster-sized map showing the city’s 18th-century grid is a popular and inexpensive option at $10, and presents a dignified way to take the Elm City to a new location.
Netflix binge-watchers can get comfy under a city-scene throw blanket for $35, and fans of Dede Plummer’s City Green (1944) painting in NHM’s atrium will appreciate the postcard version at just $2. Figures from Late Greats, a charming collection of plush historical dolls designed, sewn and stuffed by local artist Chen Reichert, are available for $28 to $34 apiece. Two of the “stuffy historical figures,” Joseph Cinque and Benedict Arnold, are exclusive to the museum. The Cinque doll depicts the leader of the Amistad rebels as a slave on one side and a free man on the other. The Arnold figure displays the man’s infamous loyalty switch quite literally: a Revolutionary blue uniform on one side, British scarlet regalia on the other.
Red and blue yields purple, as in purple amethyst, a best-seller over at the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s gift shop. The pint-sized ones go for less than $4, but larger gems and minerals, with price tags to match, are stocked with adult collectors in mind. Other items range from bug vacuums for budding entomologists to silver pendant necklaces made from the pressed wings of sunset moths.
According to Kathleen Keenan, who selects the shop’s wares, many adults come into the store wondering if it carries “those rock pencils” they remember as children. The old-school writing instrument sells for $1.69, and still features a clear tube of small rocks stoppered by an eraser cap.
Anyone who’s noted the torosaurus sculpture outside the museum on Whitney Avenue, and especially anyone who’s toured the museum’s extensive permanent and temporary dinosaur exhibits, might guess that the long-gone creatures figure prominently in the gift shop too. Myriad species can be scooped up in cuddly plush or glow-in-the-dark plastic, and even in the form of a triceratops skeleton ice tray.
This side of the most recent ice age, over at the Yale Center for British Art, “We’re the first or last stop [in the museum] for most people,” says shop buyer and assistant manager Anissa Pellegrino. “The goal is to sell things that no one else has, and to have fun.” Pellegrino sprinkles pertinent trivia cards throughout the merchandise, which often reflects an unexpected sense of playfulness.
Fans of a certain crunchy-graveled PBS series will appreciate the whimsy of “My Other House is an Abbey” t-shirts for $24.95, and the Dalek and Tardis salt-and-pepper set would make the Doctor Who fan in your life happier than Matt Smith in a bow tie. A bobbleheaded Winston Churchill would nod vigorous encouragement from your windowsill when you’re tempted to give up, and a magnetic finger puppet of Jane Austen might remind you that everything worked out for Elizabeth Bennet.
If wonkier British history is more your cup of tea, consider the King Henry VIII Christmas tree ornament for $12.95 and collect all six of his queens, still modeling their heads, or make a selection from among rows and rows of scholarly books. You can also find postcards of many artworks displayed on the museum gallery walls, such as Zebra by George Stubbs (1763), which is popular among schoolchildren.
If you prefer to give handmade tokens of affection, head north and west and build your own at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, where the workshop’s the gift shop. Plan far enough in advance and you could finish an Adirondack chair or a 12-foot kayak during a guided class; don’t plan at all and you could attend weekend walk-in hours set aside for smaller projects, when volunteers will help you build a “standard” item like a wooden pinball machine. Available guided designs change seasonally; toy boats dominate the warm-weather months the way trains take over the winter holidays.
Noting that visitors and staff complete an astounding 85,000+ projects there each year, Associate Director and Designer Sally Hill says the museum had a more traditional gift shop about two decades ago but, over time, it was decided that the emphasis should be on teaching people, especially kids, to build. “You should play to your strengths,” Hill says of the thought behind that decision.
Thought—it’s what museums are built around. And when it comes to gift-giving, isn’t it the thought that counts?
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven – (203) 562-4183
Peabody Museum of Natural History – 170 Whitney Ave, New Haven – (203) 432-8987
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven – (203) 432-2800
Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop – 915 Whitney Ave, Hamden – (203) 777-1833
Written by Lauren Langford. Photographed by Dan Mims.