Natural History Museum’s Maxine Lister on creativity, sustainability and opportunity

We caught up with the Museum’s Head of Licensing – Maxine Lister – to dive into the design process behind some of the firm’s recent collaborations.

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe.

The Museum’s licensing department develops innovative products that reflect the Museum’s core values and inspire a love of the natural world and recent collaborations have spanned everything from a paint range with Farrow & Ball to a sustainable apparel collection with Finisterre.

We caught up with the Museum’s Head of Licensing – Maxine Lister – to find out how creativity, sustainability and great design fuel the brand’s approach to collaborations.

Hi Maxine! Great to catch up, thanks for making time! To kick us off, how did you find yourself working with brands?
I am an ex-retail buyer, I worked for Borders Books when they came over from the States and was there for seven years. I worked in the States and in the UK during that time and was part of the team that opened a store in New York for them. By the time I left, I was category manager of everything but the books – toys, music, magazines, DVD etc. A lot of that was dealing with brands, so I was around licensing but from the opposite direction!

I then went to work for HMV and bought all their licensed products, and when I decided I wanted to leave retail I decided to explore the other side of licensing and go to work for a brand. That’s how I moved into licensing and see things from the other side.

See how the other half live!
Exactly! So, I applied for a job at ITV and became a licensing manager, I looked after a lot of the game shows like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale and lots of other well-known brands, including Thunderbirds.

From there I went to BBC Worldwide and was the brand licensing manager for Doctor Who and Sherlock. I was there for around five years; I was lucky enough to go to Comic-Con with Doctor Who and worked on the products for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. It was an amazing experience with great people – I learned a lot in that environment.

“Sustainability is really important to us. As you can imagine, being the Natural History Museum, there are certain levels we expect.”

I then took a year and a half out and did my own photography stuff, because I’m also a wildlife photographer.

Wow! Do you focus on a particular area?
I focus mainly with endangered species, so I worked with NGOs protecting gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants to name a few and travelled around the world.

Amazing stuff! We’ll put one of your brilliant shots in here!

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

So, what lured you away from the chimps and back into licensing?
Well, I came back and worked at the BBC for a little while and then the job at the Natural History Museum came up. For me, it was the perfect marriage between some interests I had outside of work, like my photography, and licensing. I have been here for five years now.

In your previous roles at BBC and ITV, you were dealing with character-based IP, so was the Natural History Museum was quite a jump?
Well, heritage is very different from character-based IP and I think some people assume they are quite rigid with regards to what you can do with the IP they have. When I joined, I was asked to review everything that Natural History Museum did with licensing, and completely change the strategy if I felt it needed to go in a different direction, which was great. I’m very privileged that I can build my own licensing strategy for the Museum.

You mentioned there that some people might scratch their head when it comes to heritage brands, so how would you describe the opportunities with Natural History Museum? What can partners sink their teeth into?
Our assets are our collections. The collection is huge; we have over 80 million specimens. It’s one of the biggest collections in the world. It spans insects, dinosaurs, minerals, meteors – because we’re about natural history, we cover everything! It’s fantastic.

We also have our building. It’s grade one listed and is a beautiful building. It was built as a cathedral to nature. It’s covered in sculptures and gargoyles and there’s lots of history around it because it’s the original building from 1881. We even have the architectural plans from 1880, so we can go into the archives and see all the original drawings and from that we created a style guide last year so this shows how diverse the programme can be.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

Before I came in, the Museum didn’t produce style guides. It wasn’t something that heritage brands tended to do, whereas my experience in licensing prior to that was all about style guides. I brought in style guides and we do two a year, minimum. We work with different agencies depending on what we’re trying to do, so we’ve worked with a lot of different agencies since I’ve been here. We decide each year what these themes will be based on upcoming trends.

What sort of themes have you chosen in recent years?
Last year we did an architectural style guide, so we used the plans to create patterns based on the architecture. It looks very high-end and completely different to our other guides. Dinosaurs are an evergreen theme, and the word dinosaur even comes from our Museum, Sir Richard Owen, who founded the Natural History Museum, coined the name ‘dinosauria’.

Wow! I’m making a note! Bound to pop up in a quiz…
Ha! We do have an amazing heritage knowledge around our themes.

Amazing. So how do you decide on your themes?
We look at what is in our archive and what is trending in the next few years and then we put together the style guides. We also use assets from our specimens, as we have lots of high-res imagery and an image bank that licensees can access. It gives them a starting point to create their own designs. We can also give background to collections to help provide a story, and we’ve found that having a story really works well for us.

Can you give me a good example of how you’ve built a story into one of your licensed ranges?
Our paint collection that we did with Farrow & Ball came from a book in our rare book library. It was one of the first ever colour guides, originally published in 1814. Darwin took a copy of this book – not the exact one from our collection – on his voyage on the Beagle and used it as his colour reference. So that’s an example of an amazing rich narrative that drives that collection and helps build the marketing campaign around the launch.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

Incredible. So that entire Farrow & Ball paint collection came from one single book in your collection?
Yes, a tiny A5 book called Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. I found it in the rare book library and thought it could make an amazing paint range. Then we went and discussed it with Farrow & Ball. The rare book library is vast – it’s one of the biggest collections in the world – so I haven’t even touched the surface of what’s in there yet.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

That’s what’s exciting for me – you never know what you’re going to find and what it’s going to lead to. It’s a real honour to be able to dive into that heritage. It means we can look at trends and then find accompanying collections to draw from. Look at botanicals; it’s a huge trend every year. We have a huge amount of botanical artwork in the collection, so we can create style guides based on those and link that to a trend.

Really fascinating stuff. With the brand values attached to the Natural History Museum, I imagine you have to be quite selective when it comes to the partners you work with?
Absolutely. Sustainability is really important to us. As you can imagine, being the Natural History Museum, there are certain levels we expect. We love working with brands and licensees in that sphere.

Finisterre is a B-Corp apparel licensee and we’ve just launched our second collection with them. They’re an amazing partner, in terms of their creativity and where they take our artwork. Not only are they creative, but they have that sustainability ethos running through them as well, so that’s key for us.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

We’ve also worked with big brands like Uniqlo, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis – and all of them we have conversations with about sustainability. BCI cotton is a minimum for us – we’re very clear on what we will tolerate and what we won’t tolerate. We also ask licensees to think about reducing packaging as much as possible, the inks they use and even the swing tags not being shaped to reduce any waste.

We like brands that can be creative and don’t just view us as an institution.

You mentioned Finisterre there, let’s dive into that range. How did that collaboration kick off?
Well, the first collaboration we did with them last year was based on Darwin and a female naturalist from the 17th Century called Maria Sibylla Merian. It was a really lovely collection.

This time around, we have focused on Anna Atkins, a British botanist, and Maria Sibylla Merian again because she has such strong illustrations and it is a great story.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

We had conversations about what they were thinking, and with lockdown, they were talking about the resilience of nature and nature coming back. We started with that, and they then looked at our image bank to create some mood boards. We get together to chat through that and then Georgie Britton, our Creative Development Manager, will do some research in our archives and find more things that they can use editorially on press releases or blogs to support the launch and help develop the range.

It’s a very creative, collaborative approach. It’s not a case of ‘here’s the style guide, off you go!’ We work on every part of it with them, and that helps to make it feel coherent.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

Your partners don’t have characters or movies or TV shows to lean on, so do you think working on your brand naturally encourages a certain level of creative problem solving in your licensees?
Yes, absolutely. Our industry is such a creative one, and being at the Museum, you have to think creatively about how our brand translates into product.

For some licensees, it’s probably not what they want. They might want that other route, and I totally understand and respect that. I would say Georgie and I are the biggest critics of our work. We want to be really happy with what’s going out and we want to surprise people a little bit when it comes to perceptions around what a museum would do. That’s what we get a thrill out of, and I think there’s so much opportunity for us.

We’ve spoken about apparel, but where are those future opportunities? What sectors are you interested in?
There’s loads! We do lots in the children’s’ sphere, especially in apparel. We worked with Fat Face a few years ago and that was incredible the product was strong and showed what we could do as a brand, and we worked with Marks & Spencer on a great Roald Dahl collaboration. But, in adult apparel, we could do some amazing stuff. The fashion world holds some huge opportunities for us, and I want to explore this more.

Food and drink is another category that I think we could have some fun with. There’s also something in the botanical’s drinks market now so I think we could do something there that would feel new and fresh.

“Our industry is such a creative one, and being at the Museum, you have to think creatively about how our brand translates into product.”

I’d like to do more in the toy category. We are reviewing our toy offer currently to think through what we want to do, but I think there are opportunities there. It has its challenges with us due to materials etc, but I do believe we could produce some interesting educational product.

Internationally, there’s also big projects that myself and the Head of Commercial at the Museum are planning so watch this space!

I can see how a Natural History Museum hotel, or even a themed suite at a hotel, would be brilliant.
Well, in 2018 we did the Sleep & Eat show and created a hotel room for the show in partnership with the hospitality design firm HBA. It was interesting to be part of this and when you start thinking about it and how it could look and feel, it’s an interesting area.

Maxine Lister, Natural History Museum

Yes, I checked that out and it looked great! You also mentioned a moment ago about your collaboration with Roald Dahl. How did your brand and that IP mesh? Was it a natural fit?
That came about because I bumped into Stephanie Griggs from Roald Dahl at BLE back in 2018. We had a coffee and said: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something together?” That was it! We then used Quentin Blake’s artwork and our facts about the animals and pulled them together. It didn’t feel like it jarred; it felt like a good fit.

We went to Marks & Spencer and presented it, and they wanted to be the retail partner for it. From that came a Spring/Summer 2020 collection of around 35 pieces for the launch, which was incredible. From there we did an Autumn/Winter collection, and we’ve just launched a Spring/Summer collection for this year as well. It’s been amazing.

Well worth the price of that original coffee!
Absolutely! It’s been fun, the teams get on really well and it’s been a really nice collaboration.

Before I let you, how do you fuel your creativity?
Georgie and I would usually be in the office and we bounce ideas off each other all the time – it’s constant! We can just walk around the Museum and look in the archives. We’re also big fans of Pinterest and looking online at creative things. That hasn’t really been possible in the last year as we haven’t been literally together, side-by-side. That said, we still call each other four or five times a day, so we’re still constantly in contact!

It’s become second nature to keep an eye out for interesting thing. I’ll do a food shop and make notes of interesting things! There’s so much amazing stuff out there; it’s just about finding them!

Brill! Thanks Maxine – this has been fun! Looking forward to catching up again soon.

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