August 07 2011
My mother and I recently popped into a remarkable shop at the British Museum. When I say “shop at the British Museum”, I don’t mean a place selling postcards, pencils and little die-cast knights (though the BM does have one of those, complete with rubber ducks dressed as Sphinxes). I’m referring instead to the luxury Grenville Room, which ships to an exclusive clientele worldwide and is probably the only museum shop in the UK with a personal shopping service.
Like Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamun, we weren’t expecting to discover such a treasure trove. Most of the museum’s other visitors hadn’t even realised it was there, flitting past the shop’s entrance on their way towards the bright light of the contemporary Great Court.
The Grenville Room has a very different aesthetic. It was once part of the British Library, and the elegant wood-trim décor makes it feel more like one of the adjoining 19th-century-style galleries than a shop. Set into the walls are display cases, where we peered at high-quality replicas of museum icons, such as the Egyptian “Gayer-Anderson Cat” (first picture; £2,750 in bronze; £450 in resin), alongside examples of modern-day craft, including intricate marquetry Khatam boxes (£350) and enchanting “inside-painted vases” (£325) – translucent vessels that have, as the name suggests, been painstakingly painted from the inside. They’re all presented as reverently as the museum’s most priceless treasures.
Drawing our attention towards the centre of the room were other items that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. There were beautiful hand-made Iranian pen cases (£35) and luxury books by the Folio Society (such as a limited-edition Canterbury Tales, second picture; £475) – though jewellery is the most popular attraction. The shop recently sourced some from Afghan NGO Turquoise Mountain (from £35), to coincide with an exhibition about the country. The pieces are selling so well that it hopes to keep buying them in, even though the exhibition has finished.
Of course, the replica statues are the most British Museum-y thing about the Grenville Room, and we couldn’t take our eyes off them. Imagine making a horse’s head from the Parthenon (£1,650) the focal point of your hallway. Or gracing your garden with a life-size statue of Hermes (£10,000). My mother seemed to have fallen “head over heels” in love with a cast of the god’s foot (£50), and I suddenly remembered that her birthday was coming up.
So I secretly sneaked back a few days later to buy it for her. And, OK, one of those rubber ducks as well. Don’t tell her.