Rubber ducks, mugs and snow globes

Rebecca Atkinson, 25.02.2012
Balancing culture and commerce
At a time when museums are under pressure to find alternative sources of income, all eyes are on the museum shop.

Raising income through retail was the subject of a Museum Practice seminar on Monday – speakers from a range of institutions discussed running a successful (and profitable) retail operation, from commissioning products and licensing to visual merchandising and retail strategies.

I thought it might be interesting to share a few issues that came up during the day.

The right products

The first speaker, Roderick Buchanan, director of buying and retail at the British Museum (BM), spoke to delegates about getting the balance right between culture and commerce – for example, stocking products that reflect the collection and offering “good, better, best” ranges.

He included slides illustrating the BM’s range of customised rubber ducks (Egyptian, Roman, Viking and Shakespearean). Not only is this range a best-seller but it also highlights the importance of involving curators in the design process – the Viking duck’s helmet originally had two horns, much to the dismay of curators as it is historically incorrect.

Buchanan also admitted that he'd held out against products such as snow globes until finally finding a product that he says offers the “right quality”.

Later in the day, Shirley Jackson, commercial director at English Heritage, gave the example of Keep Calm and Carry On posters, mugs, T-shirts etc. As she pointed out, love ‘em or hate ‘em, this range is one of English Heritage’s biggest sellers.


Despite the growth of online retail for high-street brands, it’s a different story for museums.

Figures from the Association for Cultural Enterprises show that e-commerce only accounts for 5% of total retail turnover, and even big players such as the British Museum, English Heritage and the Fitzwilliam Museum don’t really make much (if any) profit online. Many people I spoke to seemed surprised at this but it does make sense – museum visitors are a captive audience and many (particularly tourists) want to buy a bit of the museum to take away with them.

In addition to this, online retailing is resource heavy and many museums simply aren’t able, or willing, to make an investment in an area that doesn’t pull its weight financially.

But there might be some advantages to selling museum products in stores rather than online.

Camay Chapman-Cameron, director of Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises, pointed out in her presentation that museums can charge a higher price for products because of their “destination value”. Packaging is also a museum shop’s friend – if you make it clear on labels and wrappers that profits from sales go back to the museum, visitors are more likely to put their hands in their pockets.


Marketing was another issue that many speakers commented on. Not all museums have marketing budgets, but those that do tend to spend most if not all of this on exhibitions and displays.

At the British Museum, recruiting a PR firm has helped get products into lifestyle magazines. And Saskia Boersma, brand development manager at Transport for London, found that an advertising campaign run on the London Underground over the summer had a positive impact on awareness and sales.

If museums expect their shops to increasingly pull their weight, then perhaps money for PR and advertising might be a good investment?

But it’s not the only solution. Traci Dix-Williams, director of operations at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, told delegates that it has teamed up with retail events to reposition itself as a shopping destination and raise awareness of its entire offer to many people it might not otherwise have been able to reach.

Those are just a few points from what was a full day of discussion about retail – as all the speakers mentioned, it’s not enough to offer visitors the chance to buy some branded pencils, rubbers and rulers. Visitors expect much more and they want to buy it from you – if they can’t, they’ll simply go elsewhere.


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Jill Fenwick
Executive Administrator, Association for Cultural Enterprises (ACE)
27.09.2012, 11:09
How fantastic to hear such passion! This event was only one of many run by the MA and ACE, separately, across the year and the first we have staged together. Inevitably it would address one part of the huge sector but that was a popular decision judging by the attendance at the event. ACE's remit covers operations large and small, as does our membership, and a wide range of subjects are tackled by our members at events - check out our website at We have given special member rates to very small museums in a number of cases and have developed a system of Regional Reps to personally help ot our members and non-members across the UK & Ireland. We are most definitely not size-ist!
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
27.09.2012, 10:49
Hi and thanks for your comment. I agree that successful retail operations do not exist just in nationals or the big players - actually, a lot of delegates that attended the day are from such organisations, which is why we included two sessions for discussion with the audience. As the event was only one there there is obviously a limit on the number of speakers we can have, but I appreciate your comments and will certainly bear them in mind if we do run the event again. Many thanks,
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
27.09.2012, 10:44
Hi and thanks for your feedback - we had six speakers throughout the day (not just from nationals) and there was also plenty of discussion with the audience who were from a wide range of institutions. Obviously there isn't the space in a blog to condense everything that was discussed; this is really just a brief response to some of the points raised and is certainly not intended to summarise the day in any sense or even further the debate.
Feedback from the day has been extremely positive so I hope that if we do run it again next year, you'll consider coming along. Thanks again.
27.09.2012, 00:53
The British Museum, ACE, the Fitzwilliam, Ironbridge? Oh come on for God's sake, please Museums Association look beyond the usual suspects, It's not quite a metropolitan bias but it is the old gang. What about Bede's World, Weald & Downland, Norton Priory, Kilmartin House? Use your imaginations. This article is meaningless and useless to most of the sector. Celebrate and promote the smalller organisations that are working so hard and need to be promoted, this is such an important issue for professional development when our own membership body can't be bothered making the effort to celebrate the hard work going on out there by the regular museums workforce. To be continued...
27.09.2012, 00:45
Most museums are not major nationals, do you really think this is useful for your average smaller museum out there? -"develop some stuff based on your collection" My museum is very savvy commercially and this feedback is embarrassingly naive and basic. Is this it? I am so disappoined, couldn't afford to travel down to the course and thought it was going to be more comprehensive than this. Did I miss anything at all?