The Ashmolean Museum’s Declan McCarthy and Carrie Hickman on the untapped brand potential of the world’s first public museum

We caught up with the Ashmolean Museum’s Declan McCarthy, Head of Publishing and Licensing, and Carrie Hickman, Publishing and Licensing Co-ordinator, to find out more about the institution’s unique brand opportunities.

Owned by Oxford University, the Ashmolean is the oldest public museum in the world.

Welcoming almost one million visitors per year, it is a jewel in Oxford’s crown and has become a treasure trove of inspiration for licensing, with recent launches spanning everything from limited edition pens to wallpaper.

We caught up with the Ashmolean Museum’s Declan McCarthy, Head of Publishing and Licensing, and Carrie Hickman, Publishing and Licensing Co-ordinator, to find out more about the institution’s unique brand opportunities.

Declan McCarthy, Carrie Hickman, The Ashmolean Museum

Hi guys, great to connect. To start us off, how did you find yourselves working in licensing? Was it a love of brands or a more ‘left field’ route in?
Declan McCarthy, Head of Publishing & Licensing, Ashmolean Museum: It’s a bit of both, but looking after the Ashmolean’s publishing output – as well as supporting the Retail team for a good number of years – has given me a unique overview of the collections, with a commercial eye for what’s popular and appealing.

Carrie Hickman, Publishing and Licensing Coordinator, Ashmolean Museum: I’m new to licensing and started in my current role at the Ashmolean on the first day of lockdown, so my introduction has been interesting! I came to this role from a publishing and picture research background, but my love of art and imagery was behind my move to the Ashmolean.

Great stuff. Now for anyone new to The Ashmolean Museum, what should we know about the Ashmolean brand?
DM: We are the first public museum in the world… The word ‘museum’ came into common parlance as a result of the Ashmolean opening its doors in 1683. It also has more than three hundred years of unbroken history and really is a collection of collections – from prehistory to contemporary. It is truly unique in the heritage arena.

CH: I think, for me, one of the most interesting and exciting aspects from a brand point of view is the incredible breadth of the collection. Geographically as well as chronologically, the Museum has many beautiful objects which tell stories from a huge range of cultures across time. My interaction with the Museum as a student was mostly in the Cast Gallery or in the Western Art Galleries but the Eastern Art galleries have been a real treat to discover. It really is a treasure trove!

Declan McCarthy, Carrie Hickman, The Ashmolean Museum

Amazing – and I didn’t know that it had a role in where the word ‘musuem’ came from! I’ll bank that for a future quiz! How much of the Ashmolean’s licensing activity revolves around your current exhibitions?
DM: Probably less than you think. Maybe 30% or so. It certainly helps as licensees will know that we will have a lot of publicity around the shows and we are actively expanding their duration so more people can enjoy them. That said, the core collection is very strong in so many areas that we can offer almost anything, with the exhibitions being a bit of a bonus.

From a designer’s point of view, what is it about the Ashmolean that you think makes it a great brand to design product for?
DM: We are a small team, and we do not have layers of complex approval processes. We like to be engaged with the development at all stages and we respond quickly to ideas and designs.

CH: My background as a picture researcher means that I am always more than happy to help designers navigate the collections and make suggestions or gather images for their consideration. I’m happy to work to brief in any area and with their products in mind. We aim to be as nimble as possible and work collaboratively with our licensing partners and being a small team does help with that.

Declan McCarthy, Carrie Hickman, The Ashmolean Museum

Is there a recent product launch that you think proves a good example of how creative licensees can be with your brand?
DM: There are all sorts – we recently launched a beautiful Ruskin-inspired pen with Conway Stewart; a stamp collection and wallpaper using Oxford crests.

CH: We are currently working with designers for potential new products and they have been very creative with the use of imagery. We welcome that; we want to enable our partners as much as possible, not restrict them.

What are some of the trickier elements involved in licensing a museum brand?
DM: For a museum that is relatively new to licensing compared to some of our contemporaries, the difficulty is getting noticed in a busy environment full of beautiful imagery. The pandemic hasn’t helped, as we have not been able to invite people to come and see the incredible things we have to offer. As things start to ease, we hope to bring many new partners to Oxford to see for themselves.

CH: I agree, a visit to the Ashmolean is a real voyage of discovery so we’d absolutely welcome anybody who’s interested. I recently had the privilege of walking through one of the textile galleries before the Museum opened and the way the light was falling on one of the hangings took my breath away – it was glowing! Much better in person than seeing things through a screen.

On the flip-side, what are some of the unique opportunities that you get with a brand like the Ashmolean that you just can’t get with other IP?
CH: The geographic and chronological breadth the Museum has to offer is unique, I think, as is our open approach to flexible use of the objects we hold. We want to encourage prospective licensees to be creative and we welcome fresh ideas and new approaches.

DM: Returning to the fact that we are relatively new to licensing, we are broadly untapped, so there is the potential for a lot of fresh approaches. Couple that to a collection of over 1.3 million objects, it is a tantalising offer in the market.

Absolutely. Before I let you go, how do you and the team fuel your creativity?
DM: Our team of two are also responsible for the publications for the Ashmolean, which brings its own creativity and allows us to dig that bit deeper into the collections. Ideas are often born from the research that goes into these books.

CH: I’d add that a wander through the Museum always brings new things to light; things you may not have noticed before or a label drawing attention to an unknown story behind an object. Discovering hidden gems like this never fails to spark new ideas!

Thank you both for taking time out for this. Much appreciated!

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