Looking for unique holiday gifts? Try these 7 museum shops

For your co-worker who loves gag gifts

Take Sideshow’s name with a grain of salt. It is, for some who come to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum to shop, the totally outrageous main event.

On a crisp November Saturday, a man in a turquoise T-shirt tore his gaze from the tiny rubber chickens he was admiring to acknowledge a passing staff member. “This is the best gift shop ever,” he said, thumbing through drawers of cheap tricks: a “grow a girlfriend” kit; wriggly tentacles that slip over your fingers; head-shaped erasers and thumbtacks for the tacky.

Sideshow is a jampacked, kaleidoscopic closet of curiosities divided into three sections: novelties, books and original art. The novelty items, most of which go for a buck or two, will keep pranksters entertained for an entire holiday — perhaps never to be seen again, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Looking at you, itch powder and “rattlesnake eggs.”)

Inside the weird and wonderful shop, according to owner Ted Frankel, “you can have fun, you can laugh, you can pick things up, you can try things, and it’s okay.” Consider that formal permission: When you get to the part of the store that declares it’s the Farting Zone, go ahead and ensure the noises — courtesy of whoopee cushions — are up to par.

Oddball trinkets aside, Sideshow takes its art seriously. Frankel embraced the museum’s love of unusual, imaginative works by non-mainstream artists and travels the world looking for inventory.

Inside the museum, admire a scale model of an ocean liner constructed from 193,000 toothpicks. In the shop, take home a 2-D portrait of a Chihuahua surrounded by plump hearts. You’ll also find striking Indian scarves, made from recycled saris, or quirky jewelry fashioned from repurposed rubber and aluminum. Whether you’re looking for vintage cloth masks from the 1940s, metal Batman figurines, elephant-shaped wind chimes or loud paintings, it’s all art — as well as a gold mine of irreverent stocking stuffers.

Sideshow at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 443-872-4926.


For your cousin who knows all the family secrets

Ninja figures dangle from the ceiling of the sleek, brightly lit International Spy Museum store. They’re a fitting touch because the shop specializes in everything needed to turn you into one.

There’s a counterintelligence section. A diversion department. A section for tools of the trade and spy accessories.

It’s required shopping for future 007s, or for anyone with something to hide (or who wants to uncover someone else’s secrets). The store’s selection complements the museum’s exhibits on, for example, stealing secrets and executing covert missions — along with its artifacts. In the shop, you’ll find a camera-pen that looks and operates like the one visitors see on display in the museum.

Many of the products are enticingly fun. Who can resist a jar of creamy peanut butter … that’s empty inside and serves as a diversion safe? If that doesn’t tempt you, how about the smartphone that’s actually a flask? Ah, the joys of concealment.

We can debate the necessity of a Nunchuck Pen. But some of the items have clear functionality, such as an anti-theft travel backpack with lots of hidden zippers and cut-resistant materials. A lock-picking kit speaks for itself. Same for a key finder, webcam cover and rearview glasses.

And what if you happen to choose a gift that’s later used in a way a non-agent might disapprove of? There’s a reason the store encourages you to buy a “Deny Everything” T-shirt with every purchase.

International Spy Museum, 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW. 202-393-7798. spymuseum.org.

Iconic item: Invisibility Cloak that replicates the one from the Harry Potter books and movies.

For your globe-trotting bestie

To find gorgeous, handmade items from around the globe — South Africa, Uzbekistan, Japan, Turkey and more — head to Foggy Bottom. There, wedged between college residence halls and the tavern Tonic at Quigley’s, is the textile museum, renowned for its collection of rugs and other textiles from non-Western cultures. (The easy-to-overlook museum was previously located in Kalorama for 90 years, before reopening on the campus of George Washington University in 2015. It now shares space with such university-owned artifacts as the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana collection.)

The gift shop’s textiles and other offerings are high quality and unusual, with a wide range of price points. Scarves, for example, range from $15 to $450. Part of the merchandise’s appeal is its backstory: The best-selling shibori kimono tops were made from recycled, vintage kimonos; bullet casings from Africa have been turned into funky, brightly colored jewelry.

The apparel and accessories are ideal for fashionistas, but even some products that aren’t wearable are made from interesting fabric. A felt lamb ornament was handmade by artisans in the mountain villages of Kyrgyzstan; custom yoga mats were designed to look like kilim rugs from Anatolia; lovely pink cotton napkins, suitable for a fancy school lunch or special dinner, were woven on bamboo looms by indigenous women in Northern India.

Much of the shop’s merchandise is fair-trade: Bridge for Africa’s wire baskets, for example — both practical and attractive — fuse traditional weaving techniques with modern-day materials. They were made by Zulu weavers in rural South Africa, and proceeds help the artisans to establish sustainable lives. Doing good for both your giftee and a talented craftsman? Now that’s a win-win.

George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. 202-994-5200.

Iconic item: Handmade 78-inch silk scarf by textile artist Kevin Harris, featuring screen-printed patterns drawn from artifacts in the museum’s collection.

For your roommatewith the D.C. tattoo

Spare your friends and family the tired Greetings from Washington, D.C. postcard or sweatshirt. Skip the keychain, too.

For a standout collection of smart, quirky D.C.-centric products, head to the National Building Museum. Good design matters there, and that tenet extends to its shop. Many of the hyperlocal offerings — like a set of six frosted D.C. neighborhood glasses — are custom-made for the museum. Those were the result of a collaboration between Michael Higdon, the shop’s manager, and local printmaker Joseph Craig English. Other products pay homage to the District’s public buildings, magnificent bridges and historic landmarks. There’s a city-map-as-artwork, made from laser-cut layers of natural birch; ceramic vases etched with views of D.C. rowhouses; and Phil the Bottle, a funky, refillable water bottle stamped with a list of public drinking fountains in the District.

The museum strives to get visitors excited about the built environment, and the materials and methods used to create famous cityscapes. So it makes sense that the gift shop celebrates distinctive structures close to home, and that it’s a budding architect’s delight. Naturally, there are Lego sets galore, plus kits to make airplane origami, miniature smart houses and solar robots. Those looking for tools, not toys, might appreciate a Bluetooth tape measure that sends measurements to a mobile device, or a stealthy 11-in-1 multitool tool.

The shop’s selection of architectural books is touted as among the largest on the East Coast, and its collection of jigsaw puzzles is similarly extensive. You can’t put a price tag on imagination and curiosity, but here, you can certainly snag a gift that inspires a little of both.

National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448. nbm.org. Although the museum itself is closed for renovations, the shop will remain open through the end of the year.

Iconic item:
Wall clock depicting the iconic, high-ceilinged interior of a Metro station, complete with speeding trains. The minute and hour hands are touted as reversible, “to suit your personal style.”

For your well-accessorized aunt

In late November, a new exhibition on Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai opened at the Freer Gallery of Art — and a line of related products cycled into its shop. (The Freer, along with its sister institution, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, has recently been rebranded as the National Museum of Asian Art.) As a play on Hokusai’s famous painting “Thunder God” — depicting a demonlike red figure engulfed by clouds — the museum worked with a Japanese manga artist who credits Hokusai as one of her inspirations. She designed a “Thunder Goddess” illustration that’s expected to be particularly popular this holiday season.

The shop, which represents both the Freer and Sackler galleries — which are connected via an underground tunnel — specializes in elegant, Asian-inspired wares. Bestsellers include vintage kimonos, haori jackets (which are like hip-length kimonos) and yukatas, or robes typically made of cotton. Several times a year, the shop holds trunk shows for customers to learn how to wear kimonos correctly and grow their own collections.

Blue-and-white porcelain is big here, in the galleries and in the store. It’s a status symbol in Asian countries. Spend a little — on a chopstick rest, for example — or a lot, on a large bowl or vase.

Perhaps most dazzling is the jewelry. There are affordably priced pieces sourced from all over Asia, and fancier jewels that are more expensive. A sterling silver collection from Laos is particularly riveting, and the blue-and-white porcelain necklaces and bracelets were inspired by the decorative pieces in the Freer’s galleries.

If you’re in the market for a stocking stuffer, go for the socks; they’re not so mundane here. At one point, only the upper echelons of Japanese society wore them, but eventually, a cotton sock known as a tabi became common among all classes. It has a split toe, which means it’s ideal to wear with wooden clogs — or flip-flops.

National Museum of Asian Art, Level B1 of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. 202-633-0503. asia.si.edu.

Iconic item: Blue-and-white porcelain bead double-strand necklace.

For your uncle who’s always reminiscing — about the 18th century

An hour before closing time on a recent weekend, a tween bolted across the gift shop at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, landing in front of his mother with an important announcement. “Mom!” he cried. “You can get a [copy] of George Washington’s pistol for $99!” It’s true. (You can also get a Colonial powder horn, or a sword letter opener. Just saying.)

The spacious shop at Mount Vernon, where Washington lived from 1759 until his death in 1799, is packed with objects that educate customers about the Founding Father. There are souvenirs, of course: A young historian might enjoy an oversize, blue presidential coin lollipop or a figure of Washington himself, in bobblehead form. But the appeal of the shop is its collection of truly historical, high-end objects.

Highlights include vases and bowls made from trees that fell on the estate, such as white oaks and pecans that were planted sometime between 1771 and 1850. An ornate, gold oval mirror — presumably like the one in which Washington would have admired himself — goes for $4,400; a cast-aluminum armchair, similar to those used in the estate, is $610. There’s also an extensive collection of antique money and coins — originals, not reproductions.

Our early compatriots liked to drink, and as such, there’s a good selection of alcohol: The whiskey is hand-distilled and bottled at Mount Vernon, using Washington’s exact recipe (he was once the largest distiller in America). And the cornmeal, grits and pancake flour were ground in the estate’s reconstructed gristmill.

Perhaps the ideal stocking stuffer is “George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” The 30-page hardcover, written by Washington when he was around 14 years old, maintains his youthful spelling and punctuation errors. It’s a charming guide to good manners and etiquette — a well-timed gift, indeed.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 3200 Mount Vernon Hwy., Mount Vernon. 703-780-2000. mountvernon.org.

Iconic item:

“Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” by George Washington.

For your feminist sister-in-law

Can you name five female artists? That’s the implicit question at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the only major museum in the world that’s completely dedicated to celebrating female artists. And it’s the literal question stamped in bold white letters on one of the gift shop’s statement-making T-shirts.

The shop is a terrific, daring extension of the museum’s exhibitions. Adriana Regalado, the director of retail operations, aims to carry only products created by women, or by companies that are owned or creatively driven by women. Another goal is for at least half those companies to be owned by women of color.

The selection shifts with the exhibitions, so right now, there’s a lot that pays tribute to Judy Chicago, such as bold “Dinner Party” pillows and coaster sets. But the emphasis on local makers is also big here, and those products are always stocked (at least in theory — some are so popular, they’re hard to keep on the shelves). There’s a funky clutch by local textile artist Eva Calonder, for example, and soy wax candles by Handmade Habitat, which is based in the District’s Brookland neighborhood. The commitment to local artists is so strong that NMWA occasionally hosts in-shop events, like an intimate concert last summer with D.C.-based Black Folks Don’t Sing?, a band featuring non-binary musicians.

The range of available products is wide: Peruse home decor, zines, jewelry and a solid selection of empowering kids’ books. Titles include “13 Women Artists Children Should Know,” “Crafting With Feminism” and “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.”

Perhaps hardest to resist, though, is the apparel, which is eye-catching and attention-grabbing. “Men have made a lot of bad art,” one shouts. “Chill with that misogyny,” another suggests. Holiday conversation-starters, for sure.

National Museum of Women in the Arts,
1250 New York Ave. NW. 202-783-5000. nmwa.org.

Iconic item: “Do not touch the artwork” ball cap by local apparel company District of Clothing.