Three gift shops in Washington D.C. museums with some desirable merch

Our contributor Dereck Mangus takes a walk around Capitol Hill and stops in three museum gift shops and reports on their holiday and other goods for sale. Dereck sums up the shops saying, "What museumgoers choose to buy in these shops will commemorate their visits for years to come. While we cannot take home with us a piece from the museum collection, we are allowed to acquire small tokens of our enchantment." All the three gift shops discussed have online stores for browsing and purchasing.

A 3-D Christmas ornament shows the farmer with pitchfork and his wife in front of a church, taken from Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic” painting.
“American Gothic” Christmas tree ornament: Gallery Shop, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

I took a day trip to our nation’s capital last weekend. It was an overcast autumn day, the perfect time to visit museums. The Smithsonian’s vast network of cultural institutions would take weeks, months even, to explore all of them. Ostensibly, I wanted to check out Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper, a new show that recently opened at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). However, holiday shopping beckoned me to check out some gift shops as well.

After arriving at Union Station a little early, I had some time to kill. So, I visited the Postal Museum, next to the station, on Massachusetts Avenue. As I entered the building, I realized that though I’ve been to D.C. many times before, I’ve somehow always missed this particular museum.

A museum shop is labeled “MUSEUM SHOP” with a red sign with white letters, and above the sign are blown up replicas of a 6 cent and a 16 cent postage stamp. The shop is the Postal Museum Shop.
The Postal Museum Shop entrance, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

The Postal Museum’s proximity to the train station makes a certain amount of historical sense, seeing as the U.S. Congress officially designated all railroad lines postal routes as early as 1838. The young republic needed an efficient means to keep the lines of communication open between maritime cities on its Eastern Seaboard and points further inland as the frontier continued to develop and expand westward.


The Postal Museum Store is a quiet, little space on the basement level of the building. The Beaux-Arts design of its exterior and interior make the Postal Museum feel like it could be a real post office. Indeed, it was. And, in at least one way, it still is. One of the coolest features of its Museum Shop is the Stamp Store, where you can buy… well, stamps. There’s a range of stylized postage you can get there, from an array of tulip blossoms to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Don’t try to get any Peanuts stamps by Charles M. Schulz though: they’re currently sold out. But you can order them online at: Visit the online shop here.

A familiar white USPS mail truck in miniature sits parked in a plastic vitrine above a sign that says, “metal mail truck” $15.
A toy metal mail truck, Postal Museum Shop, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

Other than stamps, you can purchase all sorts of postal-related merchandise. There’s the classic U.S. Mail nylon cap with eagle logo, for example. Or, for $15, you can buy a miniature metal mail truck, the perfect gift for a youngster. Further inside the Shop, you can find a whole bunch of books on the history and culture of the United States Postal Service, such as The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask and Delivered under Fire: Absalom Markland and Freedom’s Mail by Candice Shy Hooper.

After my visit to the Postal Museum Shop I strolled along Louisiana Ave towards the National Mall and the National Gallery of Art. Following my security check-in at the National Gallery of Art East Building entrance, I decided to skip the Rothko show for the time being, and make a beeline to the NGA gift shop. The NGA Gallery Shop is split into several locations. The one in the East Building is a small, triangular space that sells mostly books and jewelry. Museums tend to push products related to their current exhibitions, and stacks of Rothko catalogs and other relevant wares were on full display everywhere I looked.

A large number of colorful prints by Mark Rothko stand on a several tables in a giftshop at the National Gallery of Art
Mark Rothko merchandise, in conjunction with his exhibit: Gallery Shop, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

To get to the main gift shop at the NGA, you have to traverse an underground tunnel with one of those moving walkways you find in airports. Once on the other side, you pass by a small food court, another mini-gift shop and, eventually, the main Gallery Shop, where Rothko merch is in full swing. But it’s also the holiday season, so there are plenty of holiday gifts for sale. For $35.00, you can purchase a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” sculpture from 1964, or another one in the shape of the farmer and his wife from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930).

After exiting the NGA’s north entrance, I turned left and the National Archives Museum came into view in the middle distance. I walked down Constitution Avenue, passing the NGA outdoor sculpture garden—where Indiana’s “AMOR” sculpture, the Spanish counterpart to “LOVE,” sits—along the way.

A gift shop entrance is labeled National Archives Store and in front of it are three manikins of a couple and a chile, all wearing merchandise from the store.
National Archives Store entrance, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

Once inside the National Archives Museum, I quickly located their gift shop and began to enumerate the many items for sale there. As with the Postal Museum Shop, the merchandise sold at the National Archives Store is an extension of their collection: poster-sized reproductions of the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; a facsimile of the Resolute Desk from the Oval Office; presidential socks; and a Bobblehead Trump.

A vast number of canisters containing replicas of founding documents of the United States sits on shelves waiting to be selected for purchase.
Canisters containing posters of historical documents: National Archives, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Dereck Stafford Mangus

It’s all too easy to write off museum gift shops as chintzy tourist traps whose sole purpose is to generate sales at grossly marked-up prices. However, upon closer inspection, there is so much more to museum gift shops. Their many seasonal offerings rival those found in department stores. And there are often local artisans and jewelers who sell their wares there as well, like modern bazaars. Finally, the gift shop is likely the last stop on the museum tour. What museumgoers choose to buy in these shops will commemorate their visits for years to come. While we cannot take home with us a piece from the museum collection, we are allowed to acquire small tokens of our enchantment.

[Ed. note: For those who are not in Washington, D.C., you can purchase items from these museum gift shops online at the links throughout this post.]