A fine heritage… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes highlights some of the recent products and programmes emerging from the museums and heritage sector.

One of the many things I have missed during lockdown is the opportunity to pop into museums and galleries between meetings. I have always found this a welcome distraction from work and also a source of inspiration.

From a licensing point of view, the heritage sector is one that seems to be in a period of growth with some great products and programmes emerging from the sector.

The V&A has been a great pathfinder for heritage licensing. Lockdown has been a challenge for museums and galleries with sites being closed, exhibitions being mothballed and revenue streams impacted. Many in the sector have worked hard to keep going with online shops, virtual exhibitions and education programmes. In my own experience with our client The Ashmolean Museum we have been working with existing licensees, developing new assets and thinking ahead in terms of our licensing plans. I know it has had some success with its ecommerce activities but of course there is still a gap to fill, momentum to get back and exhibitions to open.

Against this backdrop I took a tour of a number of museum and gallery shops to pick out some noteworthy products that illustrate the direction of travel in the sector and also the variety of opportunities the category creates. I would caveat my selections by saying I am not sure if all of them are licensed ranges. Many of the retail outlets within the sector create their own products for direct retailing purposes, but also top up things from other suppliers including other museums and galleries. They also stock and sell licensed ranges, but it is also worth noting that licensees entering this space need to come on board with the ability to build broad distribution and not just focus on selling their products back to the museum and gallery shops.

The Irvin flying jacket captures a key moment in RAF history.
The Irvin flying jacket captures a key moment in RAF history.

The first of my picks is from the Imperial War Museum shop. It is the Irvin flying jacket made from sheepskin shearling leather. The jacket was originally designed for RAF pilots. It is a relatively high-end product selling at £880 and captures a key moment in RAF history.

The IWM has examples in its collection which underpins the authenticity of the product. This version includes an Irvin label to further reinforce the authenticity of the product. This is a great example of a product that has been directly derived from a museum collection and has a significant niche appeal. In this context the IWM shop is operating as a destination store for aviation, military and RAF enthusiasts.

The History of London playing cards showcase the collection in the Museum of London well.
The History of London playing cards showcase the collection in the Museum of London well.

At the other end of the price scale is a pack of playing cards stocked in the Museum of London shop which sell for around £5. The History of London Illustrated Playing Cards feature items from the museum’s collection. It would be a low cost pick up item in normal times that showcases the museum’s collection well. As it isn’t branded with the Museum of London it can be and is sold in other heritage outlets. Not sure what the deal is on this product – it may be based on an image use arrangement but from the museum’s point of view it gets their collection literally and metaphorically into more hands. Licensing is a great way for museums and galleries to engage with new audiences. It is not all about revenue generation.

Within their own shops, museums and galleries have to cater for a diverse range of consumers and budgets – from pocket money purchasers through to dedicated collectors. This is quite a challenge and this is where licensing can play a role as well. Boosting their supplier base, accessing new ideas and benefitting from economies of scale.

The Grayson Perry product range includes a silk square with Tate Modern at the centre of the design.
The Grayson Perry product range includes a silk square with Tate Modern at the centre of the design.

I also like the way museums and galleries engage with artists to create specific and bespoke collections.

One of the best at doing this is the Tate and a great example of this is the Grayson Perry product range which includes a silk square with the Tate Modern building at the centre of the design. This is a great example of a gallery creating unique designs and products by engaging with artists who feature in their wider collection. This also works when there are specific exhibitions on – exhibitions can create great momentum for a particular artist or art movement. Brand owners and institutions are getting better at using these key moments to kickstart campaigns, while retailers are recognising that heritage can crossover into pop culture especially if there is an exhibition programme in place.

Given the depth of museum and galleries’ collections it is not surprising to see the success they enjoy in areas like greetings cards, postcards, postcard sets and calendars. For licensees in these categories, museums and galleries are a rich source of assets.

Flametree has created three different Ashmolean calendars for this year.
Flametree has created three different Ashmolean calendars for this year.

The Ashmolean Museum has a very successful partnership with Woodmansterne for greetings cards which in part is fired up by the fact that the Ashmolean can offer a rich variety of imagery that covers a lot of bases in greeting card terms. Woodmansterne features a range of art and artists including John Ruskin. Subject matter includes birds, wildlife, fashion and gardens.

In a similar vein, calendar company Flametree has enjoyed great success with the Ashmolean and this year produced three different calendars. Again a nod to the quality and depth of the Ashmolean’s collection.

Museums and galleries can offer licensees a wide selection of images.
Museums and galleries can offer licensees a wide selection of images.

Another good example of how heritage organisations can offer a comprehensive source of imagery is found with the British Library Treasures range of boxed postcards. The sets have 16 postcards in them and include subjects like Natural History featuring art from illustrated books. Museums and galleries can offer licensees a wide selection of images and to a large extent a supply that is endless allowing for product refreshment coupled with the ability to tap into emerging trends.

A final example to finish on is from the London Transport Museum. I think it is very impressive how the museum and TfL have developed a range of home furnishings that feature the fabric and patterns from the Tube and London buses. This shows a real leap of creativity, but also a fantastic recognition of TfL’s heritage. This range has been around for a while and I can imagine it has wide appeal including to consumers outside of the UK. The Moquette design range includes items such as cushions, sofas and bags – you can even buy the fabric by the yard now. I think this is a great example of using heritage assets in a progressive and imaginative way. I believe there is a blended operation in play where the shop develops its own lines while a range of licensees develop others. It is also a design style that is applied to other products such as socks. TfL has really created a unique offer and has found a way of commercialising part of London history in a sensitive way.

Hopefully I, like many others, will be returning to museums and galleries soon. In the meantime have a look at what they are offering at the moment. Sites like the Ashmolean’s are content rich and give virtual visitors the chance for a little bit of desktop escapism. Much credit to the museum and gallery sector for keeping the show on the road. It might also be worth taking a shopping trip especially if you are looking for fresh, original and creative products.

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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