Shops have become an integral part of the visitor experience across museums and heritage sites, but it has been a long journey to reach the formats they exist in today. Having recently attended a lecture by Jamie Larkin, a research student from University College London, I have had my eyes opened to the long history of the shops that we take so much for granted.

The beginnings of trading as part of the visitor experience can be traced back to medieval times, when badges and relics were sold at pilgrimage sites. However, it was not until the late 1700s and early 1800s that the concept really originated, with the production of catalogues for museums and galleries. Once we reached the early twentieth century the government pushed for museums to become more accessible to the general public with proper guidebooks to educate them. Following this, institutions such as the British Museum started catalogue stalls within their walls to sell guide books and postcards.

Over the next few decades many of the museums and heritage sites began to expand their offerings as a result of financial struggles. Whilst this change received some criticism, it was welcomed by the public at large and the idea spread due to this public demand. By the mid to late 1970s the gift shop had become a staple part of the visitor experience in places such as the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery.

The Westminster Abbey Shop fits into this timeline with its own unique history. By the 1950s there had been various bookstalls selling postcards and guidebooks around the Abbey for many years, but now it was decided that a dedicated shop was needed. The Westminster Abbey Bookshop opened on 26th March 1956 in its current location, originally built as the Chapter Clerk’s office in the 1830s by Edward Blore, the Abbey Surveyor.

Shop interior in the 1950s

In the 1970s the shop expanded its product selection beyond books and postcards and began to stock a wider range of souvenirs.

Shop interior in the 1970s

The shop has had many refits over the years, changing to accommodate a more varied product selection and increased visitor numbers.

Shop interior in the 1980s

Shop interior in the 1990s

The biggest change was in 2004 with the extension of the shop into the basement space of the building next door. This created additional selling space, perfect for cabinets to display a growing range of bespoke jewellery and textiles inspired by the Abbey.

In 2006 the shop changed its name from the Westminster Abbey Bookshop to the Westminster Abbey Shop to reflect the changed nature of the range of products on sale. The shop as it is today looks very different to how it began but still serves its original purpose: to support the ministry of the Abbey and to help maintain its fabric through generating profit, and to enhance the experience of the Abbey visitor.

Shop interior from 2009 onwards