Check out these five Chattanooga-area museum gift shops that are worth your time and money

Staff photos by Matt Hamilton / Pam Reed and Anne Rankin at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts
Staff photos by Matt Hamilton / Pam Reed and Anne Rankin at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

When we were children, there was no greater joy than going on a school field trip to a museum. The wonder and intrigue conjured by the museum's exhibits were awe-inspiring to our developing minds, and the cherry-on-top for these trips was getting to explore the equally wondrous museum gift shop.

We may grow older, but museums and their gift shops still retain their sense of awe. Here are five Chattanooga-area museums and their gift shops that are worth your time and hard-earned money.

Hunter Museum of American Art

— Hunter Museum Guest Services Manager Cynthia Boucher works to make sure the gift shop is just as curated as the museum. She stocks the store with items that are reflective of the museum's permanent collections and special exhibitions, and she represents the arts community by featuring products from local and regional artists. With a boutique feel, the gift shop offers finer products rather than more touristy items, Boucher says.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The gift shop in the Hunter Museum of American Art

"I've got people that want to come in here and check it out first before they even go into the galleries," she says. "I have those that say, 'I'm waiting for my dessert,' and so when they come in, this is their dessert after the main course. And what you are selling is memories. You're selling the memory of [a visitor's] experience at the museum."

For children, there are fun, stimulating toys, games and crafts for sale, and for adults, there's a variety of jewelry, glasswork, pottery and other art-related products to suit anyone's tastes. A major draw is the shop's Art-O-Mat machine, which dispenses small individual artworks for the cost of a $5 token, purchased at the register.

International Towing & Recovery Museum

— As the birthplace of the tow truck, invented by Ernest Holmes Sr. in 1916, it's fitting that Chattanooga is home to a towing and recovery museum. And while there's plenty of towing-related memorabilia in the gift shop, there's also so much more.

Among all the coveralls, beanies with built-in headlamps and toy trucks, you'll find a wide assortment of items, including Nora Fleming stoneware, Bogg bags and Duke Cannon grooming products. There's even a locally made section, featuring Hoff and Pepper sauces and The Rustic House candles.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The gift shop at the International Towing and Recovery Museum

So when you visit the museum, you're not just going to learn about the history and legacy of the towing industry and see over 20 different tow trucks. You're also going to have the opportunity to pick up a little something for yourself and your friends and family.

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

— A visit to the railroad museum is an experiential journey through history. When it comes to trains, you can tour different types of locomotives and cars at the railroad depot or take your pick of a train ride on one of several different routes through the area. You can also have tea or a meal in the depot's main dining room, which is immaculately designed with antiques and other decorations for a sense of period elegance.

The gift shop itself is very important for the museum, according to Depot Manager Lisa Goodman.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Lisa Goodman at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's gift shop

"I feel like it's a huge part, and [visitors] want to take something with them," she says. "They want to have something — especially the ones who are traveling from out of state — that has the railroad on it that they can take back home to remember their visit here."

Children will enjoy the gift shop's variety of model trains, stuffed animals and other games and toys, while adults will have no shortage of collectibles, t-shirts, ornaments and art prints to choose from to remember the railroad.

Lodge Museum of Cast Iron

— At Lodge Cast Iron, the store came before the museum. The factory store has been selling anything and everything related to cast-iron cooking and Southern food culture for years, and in 2022, Lodge opened its museum.

When you visit the museum, you'll learn about the history of cast iron and the process of forging it. You'll also get to see the world's largest cast-iron skillet — yes, it's huge.

Once you've taken a stroll through the museum, you'll have the opportunity to shop for your own skillet (there's certainly one for every kind of cook), some cornbread mix to christen it and a few care products to make sure it can be handed down through the generations. There's also plenty of merchandise, seasonings, canned goods and more, so every foodie can walk away happy.

Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

— The Houston Museum is unique in that every item on display is from the personal collection of one woman, Anna Safley Houston. The museum houses 20,000 various artifacts Houston possessed, and only 30-40% of the collection is able to be displayed at one time, Chatter previously reported.

With the museum's gift shop, museum director Pam Reed and gift shop manager/docent Anne Rankin curate items that are appealing to the public but also reflective of Houston's collection and legacy. In this same vein, the women buy antiques, glassworks, products from various artists (local and elsewhere) and a plethora of other finer items to stock the gift shop, giving it a unique and classy feel.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

Reed and Rankin note that they don't buy items in bulk. They might buy a few of one item, or even just one, making each product in the store special. This small-batch curation means the shop's stock is ever-changing, and an item you see on one visit may not be there when you visit the next time.

The Houston Museum will undergo renovations through fall of 2025. During the renovations, the museum will open in a temporary space at the site of the former Back Inn Cafe, 411 E. Second St., in spring of 2024. The temporary location will still have a gift shop, and it will even be larger than the current one, Reed says.

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