The Brand Radar: Museum Selection and the benefits of a design-led approach to heritage licensing

With Museum Selection turning 20 this year, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how the retailer is a good example of how to succeed through a laser-like focus on product, design and presentation.

Looking into the world of licensing, it seems that heritage licensing is one category that’s developing rapidly and growing in stature. There are arguably a number of reasons for this, including the fact that heritage brand owners ­­– such as museums and galleries – have become more active in the market and licensees are more willing to engage with the sector.

From a licensing perspective, rights sourced from museums and galleries have longevity, are not tied into a specific media event and bring a well-defined consumer market. Leading players like the Victoria & Albert Museum have been long term flag bearers for the category and have built very successful licensing programmes internationally. This has encouraged others to look at their own collections and imagine what they can do commercially.

There is also more awareness and acceptance from retailers about the potential that heritage brands can bring them. Connected to this is the rise in e-commerce and digital marketing. There are lots of e-commerce companies who have grown rapidly in recent times and provide sales platforms that are well suited to heritage brands.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

A great example is Surface View. They curate collections from museums such as The Ashmolean and use their rich archive of designs to curate print on demand collections for home interiors and design. In turn, Surface View run well targeted digital marketing campaigns promoting their products centred on design trends, colour selection and inspiration – all underpinned with the authenticity of heritage collections they feature. They back this with carefully curated PR campaigns in design and interiors magazines. Licensees like Surface View have opened up new markets and opportunities for heritage brands.

Another driver for brand owners in the category is a financial one – licensing provides a new revenue stream for them and a novel way of engaging with consumers. Licensing can help build a connection with consumers; particularly hard to reach consumers. In simple terms, a consumer who buys a Van Gogh Museum t-shirt in Primark may well then be inspired to visit the museum to see the original artwork that inspired the design.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

While there certainly seems to be an upturn in interest and in the use of heritage licences in recent times, it would be wrong to think that this is entirely a new thing in licensing. A good measure of this is that specialist retailer Museum Selection is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Founded in 2002, Museum Selection is a catalogue and online retailer focused on items related to, sourced from and inspired by museum and gallery collections. They run a mixed economy blending products bought in from licensees, some from the institutions themselves and others that they develop themselves.

According to their website and catalogue, they work with 29 museums and galleries from Britain and beyond. Their partners include the Ashmolean, the British Museum, The Lowry, New York Botanical Garden and The Bodleian Libraries. They also seek out specialist collections and ones that aren’t so well known. Good examples of this include the Met Office, the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the Cloud Appreciation Society.

They seek out noteworthy and interesting products that celebrate good design and have embraced the philosophy of William Morris in their approach to sourcing and product development: “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. In the context of current thinking in regards to sustainability, this mantra seems even more relevant and a useful starting position to operate from.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

Museum Selection’s Autumn 2022 catalogue has just been published and is a useful snapshot on current trends in the heritage sector. Of course, it also provides a great insight into Museum Selection’s approach to range development and product selection. The catalogue is divided up into some key themes under which specific products are showcased. This allows consumers to browse easily and to buy by theme. A key motivator for purchase will be gifting and this approach to ranging makes gift buying easier as well.

Some of the noteworthy designers and design movements featured include Clarice Cliff, Bauhaus and Art Deco. For example, the catalogue features Deco Mango Nesting tables echoing furniture used in the redesign of Eltham Palace in the 1930s.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

Other featured designers include a collection inspired by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This includes items such as lamps and tea light holders inspired by the fixtures and fittings at Hill House which was designed by Mackintosh.

Under broad themes such as Oriental Art are products sourced directly from licensees and museums such as the Ashmolean. Here they carry a tray that reproduces the ‘Cranes, Wisteria and Cycads’ wall hanging held by the Ashmolean and a jigsaw that features another work from the Ashmolean Peacock Garden.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

Other interesting examples of product development influenced by specific museums and items include the Rijksmuseum – where Museum Selection sell a Delft Flower Brick – and a Lantern pendant based on ‘The Light of the World’ painting from St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

Museum Selection’s product range is quite a broad one encompassing furniture, soft furnishings, books, kitchen textiles, apparel and construction kits. Of course, the recurring theme is that their products are based on and influenced by heritage collections. For example, they carry a construction kit of the iconic locomotive The Flying Scotsman and a range of British Mystery Novels developed by The British Library.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

The catalogue also includes seasonal products such as Christmas cards, decorations, biscuit tins and gift wrap. In most of their curated collections there are a fair amount of ‘exclusive’ designs and products. Another big theme is gardens and gardening. Here there are items sourced from the RHS, English Heritage and the National Trust.

Museum Selection are a great example of a retailer that has a laser like focus on product, design and presentation. They know their consumer well and are experts in their category. They are also a company which reflects the changing shape of retail, retail marketing and licensing; a hybrid company that straddles a number of categories and functions.

Their approach to product sourcing is also noteworthy for being design-led rather than being constricted by supplier base. They look far and wide for interesting and appropriate products. For example, they have a range of jewellery sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes

It is good to see a retailer supporting the heritage category and celebrating the variety to be found from within it. Museum Selection is a great showcase for and of heritage licensing and a good case study of how a focused approach to retailing can pay off.

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