Mission, Market, Money? Reflections from the SEMDP’s ‘Creative Commercial Collections’ Study Visit to the Netherlands May 2017 – Day 2: ZuiderZee Museum

After breakfast we walked through picturesque Enkhuizen to our first host institution: The ZuiderZee Museum. Netherlands ‘Museum of the Year’ 2013, this indoor-and-outdoor museum uses collaborations with artists and craftspeople throughout its displays to interpret the stories of people who lived and worked on the shores of the ZuiderZee before the Afsluitdijk (IJsselmeer Barrier Dam) changed the sea into the Ijsselmeer inland waterway in 1932.

Our host at the ZuiderZee Museum, Femke van Drongelen, Head of Education and Presentation, had arranged an absolutely packed day of exploration around the theme of Creative Commercial Collections. Our ‘base camp’ was the delightful Koffiehuis Hoorn, with its delightful tiled interior, one of the historic buildings transported to Enkhuizen as part of its collection. First curator André Groeneveld introduced the museum and its evolution over 50 years from inception for opening. André highlighted the role of leadership in shaping the way that contemporary creative practice had come to play such an important role in the museum’s interpretive approach with directors during the 2000s using this as a strategy to make the museum more outward looking and relevant. Head of Collections Kees Hendricks highlighted that whilst few of the objects in the collection are outstanding in their own right, the combination of objects, houses and art creates a unique experience.

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Next we headed out into the Outdoor museum, led by guide Anneke who gave us a fascinating insight into the range of interpretive techniques employed. Our primary focus was the Design Route – a trail of contemporary Dutch design objects in the outdoor museum related to ZuiderZee heritage, communities, trades and crafts. We also explored other interpretive approaches, including ‘in role’ costumed interpreters, hands-on demonstrations and more conventional museum displays and signage. Anneke’s background in anthropology came to the fore, as we explored the layers of interpretation and the way that the artistic interventions change the way that the past is brought to life for visitors. We also saw the range of retail units that are integrated into the outdoor museum. As well as a souvenir shop, there is a cheese warehouse, bakers shop and sweetshop, all in historic buildings brought from around the region. It was great to see the range on offer and get a general idea of the retail approach, but sadly none of the museum’s commercial or retail specialists were able to join us and so some of our group’s specific questions about the business decisions and results couldn’t be answered for us on the day. However we did get a general understanding that the museum is still significantly supported with public funding and, although it is being encouraged to widen its revenue streams, does not face the same level of financial imperative that most of the UK museums in the group are addressing as a matter of urgency.

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Back in the Koffiehuis Hoorn we were joined for lunch by the museum director Stefan and then were treated to a most fascinating presentation by Thomas Eyck, a leading figure in the Dutch design world. His unconventional retrospective ‘10 Years of Thomas Eyck’ is currently on show in the Indoor Museum. Thomas showed how a study of art history and deep fascination with the creative processes of the past have driven his vision as a curator and retailer of contemporary Dutch design. He gave numerous examples of how museum collections had inspired his own work and that of the designers whose work he sells. Thomas gave valuable pointers to making design retail work commercially: go high end and sell in galleries – the museum retail market is not sufficient, he says, you need the world to sell your products.

Guide Rita then led us on a tour of the ‘10 Years of Thomas Eyck’ exhibition and other aspects of the Indoor museum, including the shop. Startlingly different from the retail offer in the Outdoor museum, this features a contemporary Dutch design-led offer. Many of the items are highly priced and derived from specific collaborations between the museum and makers, inspired by objects and narratives from the collections. We learned that this shop is not primarily focused on revenue generation, rather it plays a role in repositioning the museum as a player in the art and design scene, both in the Netherlands and internationally. We saw some of the highly successful design products that had emerged from collaborations between the museum and designers represented by Thomas Eyck – such as Christien Meindertsma’s Flax Ottoman, selected as a gift to be given from the Dutch Government to President Obama. And we came to understand that while there are financial benefits to these collaborations, they accrue to the designers, makers and retailers, rather than to the museum.

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We returned to the Koffiehuis Hoorn to meet another Dutch designer who has conducted a series of fascinating collaborations with the ZuiderZee Museum and other museums. Jos Kranen is one half of renowned design studio Kranen/Gille. Jos took us through the fascinating creative process of creating a range of ZuiderZee lamps, an idea that started when curator Andre showed him behind the scenes in a store where the museum keeps reserve collection items for set dressing. Ceramic food storage jars became the basis of both individually crafted objects for museum display, and a production line of lamps that are sold with the museum’s logo on the base. We had a chance to discuss with Jos and the museum team some of the financial decisions that go into creating a saleable product based on a museum collaboration.

At the end of the day we headed to the museum’s Hindeloopen Café for a final chat and review. We discussed the financial model underpinning these collaborations and learned that whilst they are commercial, in that they are undertaken on a commercial basis by the design studio, they are not primarily commercial for the museum, which is actually an investor through commissions. The museum gains some income from items sold through its shop. However, income generation is not the primary motivation for the ZuiderZee Museum. It’s main goals in this kind of work are, firstly, to be a different way of delivering the museum’s mission – an innovative means to interpret the stories of people who lived and worked on the shores of the ZuiderZee – and to raise the profile of the museum with different audiences.

On the train on Day 1, Gwyneth had emphasised to the group the importance of deciding which of these goals was the priority in any creative commercial collections project at an early stage, as this will inform the kind of product developed, the design and commercial partners needed and the selection of distribution channels. Alistair captured these three factors, often in tension in a creative commercial collections project as ‘Mission, Money, Market’ and I present them for you here as a triangle of competing priorities to be balanced:

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The tensions between these factors, and the difference in priority between our Dutch host museum and the UK museums in the group provided ample discussion fodder for the evening. And the De Enkhuizer Visafslag restaurant, although they had initially mislaid our reservation, made a great service recovery and provided us with ample dinner fodder. Our learning highlights from Day Two were on pink postits:

Day 2: ZuiderZee Museum (pink)

  • Ensure the museum message is evident and relevant in the creative commercial activity product you are developing
  • Don’t be discouraged by others’ success – firstly they’re not perfect, secondly they’re not directly comparable
  • The contemporary use of collections in displays can tell a powerful story – how this translates commercially is more problematical.
  • Design Week may be worth a visit for potential partnerships.
  • None of them seemed to make any/much money from the collaborations. What is your reason for doing it?
  • Using contemporary artists in the interpretation of the museum/collections
  • Think about whether your key motive is mission, money or marketing and focus on that outcome.
  • Artist museum-inspired work will not sell to mass market visitors
  • There’s lots of ways to build a brand identity but be clear about what you are about and why you are doing it
  • A collaboration can be “commercial” but not accrue financial benefits to the museum – e.g. if designer/maker/retailer gets the money
  • Rolling programme of themes – every five years – worth investigating to bring variety to static exhibits.
  • Commercial activity can have a wider remit than traditional interpretations suggest – but tread carefully
  • Branding would enable you to make money when working with emerging artists. Making money is not always possible, depends on your requirements.
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