Powering up your commercial partnerships - Museums Association

Powering up your commercial partnerships

Kate Rolfe and Jeani Tamakloe on the benefits for museums of working closely and collaboratively with suppliers
Kate Rolfe
Jeani Tamakloe

The traditional dynamics between cultural institutions and their suppliers are undergoing a transformative shift, becoming more balanced, interdependent working relationships.

New ways of working recognise the real value and impact both parties bring to the table as integral partners in achieving the museum’s core purpose.

Sharing your vision and values 

In an era when delivering an authentic and visitor-focused experience is crucial, integrating your vision and values into your suppliers remit has become more important than ever.

Sandy Robson, the executive director of Heritage Portfolio, which provides catering and event services, emphasises the symbiotic relationship between venues and suppliers.


“By understanding the vision of our venue partners, we can tailor our service and offering to connect to their values,” Robson says. “Ensuring alignment means a seamless experience for the visitor, with all partners working in a similar way so there is no division between venue and supplier – we are all working as one.” 

This alignment not only enhances the experience of visitors but also translates into commercial success, where shared values contribute to premium offerings and heightened value.

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By sharing your vision and core values with your suppliers from the get-go, it is easier to find the right balance in your collaborations. Your suppliers will be able to offer services and products with more elements that are relevant to the identity of the museum. In turn, the museum will be able to create a more authentic and joined-up experience for its visitors. 

Emma Allen is the head of commercial services at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which has sites in Portsmouth, Hartlepool and Yeovilton in Somerset. She says finding the right balance was an important part of recent work with a publishing supplier.

“We had to work collaboratively with Seaforth Publishing to balance what we needed from a museum brand perspective, and what we all needed in terms of financial return,” Allen says. “Bringing them into the bigger picture of our vision for the project and the importance of different elements helped us find common ground and create something that worked for us all, including our audiences.”

Case study: Heritage Portfolio and V&A Dundee

The mission of V&A Dundee, Scotland’s design museum, is to inspire and empower through design. It aims to bring design from all over the world to Scotland and provide a platform for new Scottish design. It is through this lens that we considered our recent development of dining space in V&A Dundee and our role of showcasing where design meets food.

We achieved this by creating a new space that meets the operational objectives of the project, evolving the food and beverage proposition to meet consumer demand and celebrating the best of Scottish design through the use of regional, sustainable materials from creative local talent.

Sandy Robson is the executive director of Heritage Portfolio

Talk to suppliers early

It can be tempting to only call on suppliers once you have a clear brief ready for a strategy or project. But it can be better to have some informal conversations with consultants before finalising project briefs, and remaining open to their advice and feedback when they respond to requests for proposals. 

Consultants can play a crucial role in shaping project needs by drawing on their knowledge of current sector trends and past experiences with similar projects. By involving suppliers early in the tendering process, they can also help advise on the best return from your budget and realistic timeframes for delivering what you need. 

So long as the conversations are mindful of everyone’s time, involve a fair range of suppliers and are the first step in a transparent tender process, then it should be to everyone’s benefit.

Jim Broughton, director of strategy at museum design agency Event, echoes this sentiment. He emphasises the value of early collaboration during the exploratory stages of commissioning, especially when undertaking significant projects like new buildings or gallery renewals. 


“I think many museums appreciate the value of an external voice to ‘unthink’ internal orthodoxies or to draw on our intellectual capital – that is, it’s likely we’ll have seen a similar-shaped problem before,” Broughton says.

The Burrell Collection, which is one of the museums operated by Glasgow Life – © Hufton+Crow
Case study: Event and the Burrell Collection (Glasgow Life)

The Burrell Collection in Glasgow is a good example of the benefits of client and supplier talking early on in the process. They commissioned us to work with them on a vision study and masterplan that subsequently became the engine for a complete reimagination of their building. It spawned an architectural competition that reinvented how they present themselves to their audiences and to the city, and they subsequently hired us again to deliver a comprehensive redisplay of their galleries. The end result has been transformational.

Jim Broughton is the director of strategy at Event

Foster teamwork

"We need to be on an equal footing with our external partners, working collaboratively with them for mutual benefit," says Emma Allen at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

To help suppliers work effectively with in-house teams, it's important to involve as many internal stakeholders as possible (within reason), to make the most of everyone’s insights and expertise.

“Building a relationship [with the entire internal team] enables us to gain an understanding of the wants and needs as well as the challenges of the venue,” says Simon Turtle, chief product officer at tech consultancy Dapper Laps. “It’s not possible for us to specify a perfect technology solution without first understanding the venue’s current guest experience, and for this we need insights from all those who connect with the guest journey.” 

Gyr King, co-founder of print and framing firm King and McGaw, adds: “We like to work with museum teams to create new products that reflect both the types of exhibitions they are showing and also feeding observations and insights that we might be seeing in the wider commercial activities.” 

Actively involving the museum teams in any creative process ensures a more rounded, guest-focused concept is developed.

Involve local suppliers

Choosing local suppliers can be a pivotal step for museums aiming to strengthen ties with their community. To facilitate this, museums will need to adapt their procurement process. 

Emma Allen and her team have successfully integrated local companies into their approved supplier lists at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and the Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Recognising the resource constraints faced by local suppliers, Allen emphasises the importance of making the procurement process more accessible. In her view, this not only levels the playing field but also ensures fairness and transparency. 

The collaborative efforts of the events and procurement teams resulted in a streamlined yet thorough process.

“I think it's important to also offer onboarding for new suppliers that trains them on the museum's supplier code of conduct and helps them to work how we need them to at historic sites,” Allen says.

This approach not only strengthens the local supply chain but also ensures a better guest experience overall.

Embracing local suppliers can be a strategic decision that elevates the museum experience, resonates with visitors and fosters a sense of community and pride.

The Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton
Case Study: Local suppliers and Fleet Air Arm Museum

The Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton has embraced the idea of working with local suppliers to incorporate the essence of Somerset into its operations.

Marc Farrance, the general manager of the museum, and his team spearheaded this initiative, actively engaging with the local community to bring in unique and authentic offerings.

Emma Allen, the head of commercial services at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which runs the Fleet Air Arm Museum, says: “We’ve made a conscious decision to work with local suppliers. We wanted to incorporate the local Somerset spirit into the museum.”

While acknowledging the additional administrative effort required, Allen also highlights the tangible benefits.

“We’ve seen our cafe and retail product performance increase,” she says. “Customers appreciate us offering something unique and relevant.”

This commitment to local suppliers, Allen adds, extends beyond mere economic considerations, emphasising the sustainability and community support inherent in this approach.

Trust your suppliers

As we continue to shift into a world of closer collaboration, trust will be an essential foundation for these partnerships to thrive.

Trust enables suppliers to adapt quickly and respond to the distinctive needs of each museum, fostering open collaboration for sharing ideas and solutions. 

Jim Broughton at Event reminds us that there are a lot of shared roots and experiences that often intertwine the career paths of those working in the cultural sector. 

“Lots of our people began their working lives in museums, or have moved in and out of consultancies throughout their careers to follow a particular specialist track,” he says. “A common background fosters a much deeper understanding of nuanced challenges and aspirations for the sector.

“Understanding that we’re all in the cultural sector for the same reasons is a great way of building trust.”

By Kate Rolfe and Jeani Tamakloe from The Revels Office, a commercial and audience development consultancy

Comments (1)

  1. Alexander Goodger says:

    I think we have to be careful using V&A Dundee and sustainable in the same sentence. The shop is amazing and full of locally-sourced goods but there is no collections store at all, so every time they host an exhibition, every object has got to be shipped in from other parts of the UK and the world. Evidence that you can be leading the way in some aspects of sustainability and one of the worst culprits in others.

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