Building a retail brand that mirrors your museum’s values - Museums Association

Building a retail brand that mirrors your museum’s values

A case study from the Van Gogh House in London
Retail
Matilda Liu
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The Van Gogh House online shops includes vintage straw baskets
The Van Gogh House online shops includes vintage straw baskets

The Van Gogh House in South London is a Grade II listed building where the artist Vincent van Gogh lived between 1873 and 1874.

Following a meticulous conservation project, the house opened to the public in 2019 as a venue for artist residencies and exhibitions, curating a dynamic programme anchored in contemporary art, Van Gogh’s story and local heritage.

In November we launched an online shop. Supporting artists lies at the centre of the house’s mission, and we wanted the shop to reverberate this core value at every level. The focus was to carefully curate a collection of artwork and items that are well-made and sustainably sourced, but also embedded in the context and narrative of the house, its architecture, programme and famous resident.   

Since launching the shop, we have worked closely with independent artists and makers to come up with collaborative projects that highlight their artistic practices and the Van Gogh House. This includes:

  • A collaboration with fashion designer Cawley Studio, which saw a limited series of 16 unique scarves hand-dyed with Weld grown at Grymsdyke Farm in Buckinghamshire.  The yellow of the scarves is inspired by passages in Van Gogh’s letters, detailing his love for the colour yellow.
  • A collection silver pendants and bangles cast from the original wooden floorboards of the house, made by artist Willa Hilfreich. A common thread throughout our collection is the quality of craftsmanship that makes each piece individual, unique and precious.

Figuring out and navigating a business model for our online store during the Covid pandemic in 2020 has been a unique challenge. As a small building that will never be able to have huge visitor numbers, the online shop needs to be more than a place to buy souvenirs from a visit – we want it to be a viable source of income in its own right.

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We needed a strategy for marketing that:

  • allows our customers to experience the house and our mission while they shop;
  • puts the practice of our makers at the forefront;
  • widens our reach to international audiences who might not be able to visit.

To achieve these aims we decided to take a narrative approach. On every product page, we’ve taken the time to explain the context of the piece and the identity of its makers. In a time of uncertainty and isolation, it is more important than ever to be process-driven and to highlight the human capital and interactions behind each object.

The building of Van Gogh House is first and foremost a dwelling. We wanted to ensure that this domestic legacy is echoed in close collaborative relationships: between us, the artists, the items and the buyers.

It’s a closed loop where everyone is contributing to a larger initiative to support artists, local cultural organisations, and continued access to art and education for the public.

This is not always easy. As a young institution, we are constantly trying to find a balance between supporting our artists and generating an income, between creating demand for our shop versus responding to demand.

Working with our makers on a commission basis rather than on a sale or return model carries higher financial risks, but foregoing immediate commercial success in the present can lead to the long-term rewards of better interpersonal relationships that are fundamental to the stability and growth of our small institution.

Selling online can be difficult in capturing the atmosphere, details and aura around each unique, handmade piece. We spend vast amounts of time making sure our photography and content production is relevant and suitable for each item. We take inspiration from concept stores rather than museum shops, though we still find it challenging.

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We are experiencing a steep learning curve exacerbated by Covid and Brexit, but we remain optimistic as we see consumers shift towards supporting local and sustainable businesses.

Matilda Liu is the shop intern at Van Gogh House London

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