The happeningest place at any museum, aside from the courtyard coffee cart, is the gift shop. The one at MOCA in New York is almost as legendary as the museum itself. The shop at Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood has a stellar collection of whimsical toys and modern doodads, and I’d wager that only Amazon.com has a more extensive collection of artist monographs. A truly great museum gift shop both recapitulates the spirit of the museum and not-so-subtly commodifies the museum’s oeuvre, giving those of us who aren’t shopping at Sotheby’s anytime soon the chance to take home a bit of the wonder we’ve experienced. You can’t buy the Mona Lisa, but you can buy a Mona Lisa night-light.
Intensely curated, yet overwhelming in sheer quantity of stuff, the Huntington Library gift shop is as good as they come. Air conditioning cold enough to make a polar bear shiver blasts through the place, and it’s as if you’ve walked into heaven itself after the hellish, landlocked heat of the gardens.
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For the botanical set—and you guys are well represented here—there are rose journals, insect stationery, big floppy UV ray–blocking hats, water bottles, umbrellas, field guides to herbs and spices. For birders, try a plush toy Audubon bird that whistles a recording of its real song. For generalists, there are beaded bracelets, wrought silver necklaces, Edward Gorey cat and bat pendants arrayed in brightly lit Edwardian glass terrarium cases. Historians can peruse presidential biographies, maps, bundles of John Singer Sargent portrait post cards and William Morris–style artisan tiles.
For those who feel the need to memorialize the museum in its most literal sense, there is a great book, The Huntington Botanical Gardens 1905–1949, Personal Recollections of William Hertrich, written by the Huntington’s head groundskeeper when he was a young landscape gardener just starting out there. “I purchased gopher traps and engaged a young intelligent Mexican to devote his entire time to this work,” he writes in the chapter on Gophers and Squirrels. I went home with that book recently, as well as a small pink pamphlet on “A Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility” from the Jane Austen section, and an Arts and Crafts–style lantern.
“That’s a beautiful way to remember it,” said one woman to her friend, holding up a Zen rock-garden mousepad. They’d just been to the Japanese rock gardens section of the Huntington. And, hey, why not? With museum gift shops as with museums, one man’s tacky is another man’s art.
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, (626) 405-2100 or www.huntington.org.