The implications of museums spreading their brands

As the V&A heads north with new outposts, Emily Pacey considers the branding implications for museums and cities chasing ‘the Bilbao effect’

Everyone knows that to regenerate an ailing city you put a famous gallery or museum in a striking building and let the plaudits and punters roll in. The phenomenon is well-established by now, and even has its own name – ‘the Bilbao effect’ – derived from architect Frank Gehry’s work for the Guggenheim in the Spanish industrial city.

Here in the UK, the Victoria & Albert Museum is planning two own-branded outposts, in Scottish city Dundee and the northern seaside town of Blackpool. Both cities approached the museum directly, specifically asking it to open new museums bearing the V&A brand.

‘Blackpool in particular feels that it needs to refresh its image, and both cities feel that having our presence would make a significant difference to them in terms of regeneration,’ says V&A director Mark Jones. ‘They are interested not only in our content, but also in having the V&A name,’ he adds.

If Dundee and Blackpool are hoping that the V&A’s shine rubs off on them, some commentators believe that the museum must plan carefully to avoid tarnishing its name through the ventures.

Interbrand has worked on brand strategies for a host of museums and galleries, including the British Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. ‘If you do things which fly in the face of your values, you are watering down the uniqueness and differentiation of your brand,’ says Interbrand chief executive Jez Frampton.

He adds that, ‘If you are a globally recognised cultural brand like the V&A and you go and repurpose a semi-detached house in Dundee just to make a bit of money, then that will damage your brand.’

The V&A is, in fact, readying itself to find an architect to create a reported £42.5m building in Dundee. The successful candidate will answer a brief to ‘create a venue for our shows, but also create a new buzz and image for the city’, says Jones.

Jim Prior, managing partner of The Partners, which worked on the National Gallery’s branding review and subsequent campaigns over the past decade, believes that, ‘It would be great if every major town or city had a great gallery or museum.’ But while the building matters, he warns that ‘content is all’.

‘What you don’t want is a half-hearted gallery, where the quality of the exhibits is poor. People would rather travel a few hundred miles to see a superior gallery than walk down the road to see something inferior,’ he warns.

The Blackpool and Dundee venues will function largely as branded repositories for V&A touring exhibitions, with Dundee also dedicating space to Scottish applied arts.

In contrast, the British Museum prefers not to extend its brand away from its Bloomsbury stronghold, instead creating touring shows and acting as a consultant to other museums, most recently Abu Dhabi’s Zayed National Museum, due to open in 2013. This museum, which celebrates the life of the country’s late president, won’t carry British Museum branding.

‘It is easier for us to work with a museum that already exists, as you can send more objects to more places,’ says a British Museum spokeswoman. ‘That is just the way we have always worked’.

Frampton lists the Museum of the Moving Image, the Guggenheim and the Tate as ‘brilliant’ examples of galleries that have extended their brands globally. ‘The Tate has managed to create differentiation, such as “This is where we keep the old stuff and here is the new stuff”, that sticks in peoples’ minds – plus both galleries are landmark London destinations,’ he says of Tate Modern and Tate Britain. But he criticises the Science Museum for ‘creating really interesting experiences, but not taking the brand to the next level through expanding it’.

Prior also believes that, no matter how venerable a museum, its branding is up for grabs, while content should be treated with kid gloves.

‘I’m not suggesting that you jazz up a Caravaggio with a pink border – that’s not going to work,’ says Prior, whose consultancy stuck reproductions of the National Gallery’s treasures on buildings in London’s West End to draw visitors to its collections, as part of its Grand Tour campaign in 2007. ‘But it is dangerous to assume too much about gallery brands. The paintings may be traditional, but I’m not sure the brand has to be.’

Jones says suggestions that it should take care of its brand reputation first and foremost would be a betrayal of its public service remit. He says, ‘The purpose of the V&A is not to be a successful commercial company. It is funded by the taxpayer to achieve the objective of engaging the widest possible audience in questions of visual choice – a topic that the public has always been interested in, and there is no question that [extending our offer] will allow us to reach more people than those who come to South Kensington.’

Meanwhile, Frampton sees the V&A’s expansion as an encouraging sign of the public’s gathering interest in live culture. ‘It’s a bit like the rebirth of live rock ‘n’ roll,’ he suggests. ‘Let’s hope that this cultural juggernaut continues through museums, so those powerful brands can become a great way of ensuring people get to see great exhibitions.’

From Bilbao to Bethnal Green:

  • The Guggenheim is one of the biggest art gallery networks in the world, with a presence in New York, Venice, Bilbao, Berlin and Abu Dhabi
  • In the next four years the Victoria & Albert Museum hopes to open outposts in Blackpool and Dundee. It already runs the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, as well as the archives and stores in Kensington Olympia

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