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When it comes to museum retail it’s never enough to simply replicate the high street. The shop represents a cultural institution, so the environment and merchandise should have soul. As Anna Richardson discovers, when it’s done well it greatly enriches a day out

A museum shop can be a wondrous thing. If well-considered, it can be a treasure trove of specially commissioned products inspired by a prized collection of art or artefacts. Get it wrong, however, and all you get is a sorry excuse for a souvenir – an identikit branded pencil, perhaps.

A museum shop can even be a destination in its own right, reflecting the cultural institution’s brand through its products and visitor experience, and making it a true competitor to the high street, reckons Callum Lumsden, creative director at Small Back Room.

The consultancy has just completed four new outlets at the British Museum, a family-oriented shop, a collection shop, a bookshop and an upmarket outlet occupying the Grenville Room. ’They show where museums are going,’ says Lumsden. They are getting more savvy about differentiating their product offers, as visitors range from the foreign students who want souvenirs to those who want an upmarket product.

’Museum retail has to be special,’ agrees Rosey Blackmore, former head of merchandising at the Tate and now at Waddesdon Manor. ’We’re custodians of these extraordinary things, so it’s not sufficient for the retail to be vanilla. It’s important on many levels – whether supporting a new generation of makers and artists or supporting the visitor experience and ensuring the entire brand is of a standard, from start to finish.’

The likes of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Tate and the Victoria &Albert Museum in London get it famously right, and others are catching up. ’There is a great deal of appetite and recognition that retailing should be an important part of the museum role, and that needs to be met with action, including staff and product development and product sourcing,’ says retail consultant Michelle Bowen, who is also among the driving forces behind Museumaker, a national project that encourages collaboration between the heritage and contemporary craft sectors.

But can those museums without the benefit of abundant footfall in the tourist epicentre of Britain also sex up their retail offerings? Blackmore thinks so. One of her initiatives at Waddesdon was linking up with the Royal College of Art’s School of Applied Arts on a competition for students to design exclusive products. Running since 2008, the venture has proved successful. ’The sales have been quite modest, but what’s been fantastic is the vast amount of press coverage,’ says Blackmore. ’This project has had coverage to the value of £150 000 over the years – no comparison to what we would be in a position to spend. If anybody needed convincing, that’s all you need to know.’

Small Black Room, meanwhile, has just been appointed by the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London to design its shop, which will aim at the local market, while product and interior designer Kit Grover is working with the Women’s Library in east London to take advantage of its unique location. ’You could argue that some institutions have too small a number of visitors to warrant a retail operation and I would advise many not to waste their time or money with a shop,’ admits Grover. At the Women’s Library, however, he aims to take advantage of its exhibition programme and archive as well as its proximity to other cultural institutions and the high concentration of artists and designers in the area. The goal is an unconventional style of retail that is partly events-based, but that also sells a combination of low-volume, high-quality, exclusive yet affordable products, in manufactured selling bursts, and a small range of more generic items during quieter times.

Museumaker also works with institutions of all sizes, bringing them together with contemporary designer-makers to complement existing collections through a variety of projects. Its second phase of initiatives launched last week and includes a set of product commissions nurtured by retail experts including Blackmore, Bowen and Grover.

The Woodhorn in Northumberland commissioned Rebecca Chitty and Jessamy Kelly to develop products for its shop, with Chitty designing a ceramic bowl in the shape of a miner’s helmet as well as a Blue Plaque plate commemorating the achievements of the Ashington Group, and Kelly took the ubiquitous snow-dome as inspiration for her Soot Storm.
Grover is also working with ceramicist Clare Twomey (who has created an installation of swarming butterflies at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion as part of Museumaker) on a specially commissioned cup which will be produced by her partner Anthony Quinn.

And when it comes to fitting or revamping a shop it doesn’t have to cost too much. ’The more resource you’re able to put into that the better, but even when it comes to shopfit there are ways of being imaginative, resourceful and using things available to create a retail environment that reflects your museum,’ says Blackmore. For Waddesdon’s children’s shop, she used old furniture from the manor’s collections department to create an eclectic environment.

Whatever the retail ambitions, designers and consultants have to be sensitive – it’s never a case of applying strict rules of retail design to cultural institutions. ’The rules are slightly different,’ says Lumsden. ’You’re not talking about one big brand, you’re talking about a whole institution. They have been there for a long time, all artefacts are dear to everyone’s heart. It’s about being sensitive and understanding that.’

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