It’s taken me a while to post the third instalment of my ‘letter from the Netherlands’ – partly due to the sheer business of the run up to the Museums Hack Day and partly as I have been gathering thoughts (my own and others’) about the intriguing final day of the trip. The day had two parts: a study visit to the Rijksmuseum and then further seminar activity on the train, heading back to the UK.
We left Enkhuizen bright and early to catch the train to Amsterdam. Once there, on our way from the station to the Rijksmuseum we were struck by the visibility of museum images and products in shop windows that we passed, and had a real sense of a city that integrates its cultural offer into its wider tourism activities.
At the Rijksmuseum, our first stop was a stunning meeting room in the museum’s ‘back office’ building over the street, where Peter Gorgels, Internet Manager, met us to talk about the Rijks Studio platform and annual awards. Rijks Studio has garnered massive international attention for the Rijksmuseum. In case you have been hiding under a rock since its launch in 2013, it reverses the traditional museum approach to reproductions – ‘ban photography, charge for images.’ Instead, the museum makes thousands of high quality images of collections objects available free of charge and copyright-free, encouraging people to reuse these images in new art and design. The museum runs an annual, open-to-all competition with a substantial cash prize for the best design idea.
Following Day 2’s discussions about the ‘Mission, Money, Market’ model, our group were particularly keen to understand from Pieter the financial benefits to the museum of this project – the ‘Money’ corner. They gave him a bit of a grilling on this, which he dealt with gracefully! It became clear that the impact that the museum emphasises is, once again, all about ‘Mission and Market.’ The museum is not measuring the project’s impact in terms of additional admission or retail revenue, nor does it expect any financial return from manufacturers if they make money from a Rijksmuseum object-inspired product.
Pieter highlighted that the Rijksmuseum holds in trust collections that belong not to the museum but to the public, and that making these freely available is a high priority. The museum also recognises the public relations value of the platform and the awards, particularly in relation to the 2013 reopening of the refurbished museum, though Pieter was not aware of any ‘Equivalent Advertising Value’ or similar measures being applied to this output. Given the significant capital investment in realising Rijks Studio (just over Euros 1million, principally from BankGiro Loterij) our more commercially-minded delegates were champing at the bit to get some RoI figures. They didn’t get them, but on the other hand, they got a really valuable sense of how, if your collections are truly sensational, you can use digital, and the support of others’ commercial endeavours, to spread them far and wide. At the time of our visit, the 2017 winner was entering discussions with KLM for sleep masks, bearing images from the collection, to be used in First Class.
But there is apparently no obligation on the producers to even mention the Rijksmuseum in promotion. Let alone to share the financial rewards of their commercial activity with the museum. This magnanimity of vision inspired some members of our group, but deeply frustrated others. One of the group described it as ‘like corporate social responsibility in reverse.’
Our group’s hunger for a commercial discussion was soon sated, as Peter handed us over to the Rijksmuseum’s webshop coordinator Carlyn Hermelink. Carlyn has joined the museum from one of the Netherlands’ leading online fashion retailers and brings a strongly commercial perspective to our visit to the museum’s recently refurbished shop. There she introduced us to another Peter, a highly knowledgeable retail manager, for a highly informative discussion of pricing, stock management and retail display tactics. We saw how the museum focuses bespoke product on key items from the permanent displays and sources non-branded relevant products to accompany temporary exhibitions, avoiding the risk of being left with large amounts of dated stock once a show is over. The shop was striking for very tight management of brand identify with strongly consistent props and visual merchandising throughout.
Sadly, time was now pressing and we had (or so we thought) a train to catch imminently, so after a literally 5-minute trot upstairs to see the Night Watch, we said farewell to our hosts and caught the tram back to the station. Sod’s Law, on arrival we discovered that our train to Brussels was cancelled, so we spent an hour eating sandwiches in the station underpass, time we would all much prefer to have spent in the museum, to be frank.
Once aboard, we used the Amsterdam-Brussels leg of the journey for the third and final round of seminar activity, so that the last groups had a chance to gain from the Kickstart project learning from each of the three partner perspectives and to share their own museum’s practice with the Kickstart museums. We then used our third sticky note colour (yellow) to capture key learning points from the Rijksmuseum visit:
Day 3: Rijksmuseum (yellow)
- Affirmed my learning to date from CCC, that a collection-inspired product/output that ‘fails’ commercially can add value to subliminal marketing and brand awareness.
- Keep focused on your brand identity and know where its value lies. Do a full cost benefit analysis and lay out the shop really well.
- Is it worth charging for images/licences? If we get an online catalogue up and running it will be far easier for people to administrate themselves, saving time and effort.
- Using social media/marketing as a form of access to the collections.
- Rijksmuseum/studio model is great if you have state support/admission charges. Branding key commercial tool is you have or can build a prestigious brand.
- Digital images can be your ambassadors. Rijkstudio: develop the platform – you create the masterpiece. Should we give images free?
- It is worth assessing how much it actually costs to sell images to people. It may not be worth charging.
- The use of commissions to further the museum objects as a partially state funded organisation vs the need to be sustainable.
- High quality visual merchandising helps you tell your story. Make it easy for visitors/customers.
- Rijksmuseum’s big idea: that everyone can have a piece of the museum in their lives (via shop and Rijkstudio) and the idea of using images as the museum’s ambassadors.
- Use competitions to get interest and encourage people to reinterpret collections. Big museums have problems small ones don’t e.g. possessive specialist curators.
- Examine image licensing arrangements e.g. Art UK.Bridgeman etc and develop pricing/strategy.
Our change of trains in Brussels was a little stressful, to say the least. Due to the delay in Amsterdam we, and many others, had missed out check in time. And with security understandably tight, it took us quite a while to get through. Our last delegate scrambled on to the Eurostar with literally seconds to go. So we took a little breather before embarking on the final structured discussion of the trip: Action planning. Everybody used their fourth and final sticky note (orange) to express a practical step that they will take to implement learning back at their museum. The few minutes invested in logging action points at this stage was a particularly important part of the trip. It is easy for learning to dissipate once we get back to the coalface from a course or study visit. Deciding on and writing down an action is a powerful way to increase the likelihood that learning will be applied. Here are the results:
Action points: (orange)
- Review image licensing; Take extreme care when commissioning high value items
- Develop a licensing style guide; Review our plans for commercial photo libraries; Share excellent merchandising images from Rijksmuseum with rest of the team;
- Get a proper plan in place before jumping straight in then bring in appropriate support, especially commercially, rather than trying to do everything myself
- Look how to use crafts and contemporary arts practice to create inspirational products; Look at how to make our images our ambassadors; Experiment more with retail pilot schemes
- Take a more innovative approach to product, referencing original iconic objects closely but injecting a contemporary element e.g. high heeled clogs.
- Work in collaboration and seek advice and support in areas outside of my skills ‘Learn and share’
- Tradition inspiring innovation; Museum identify being clear; Mission and branding being clear
- Chicken and egg: museum has tried to fundraise before establishing before establishing a distinctive identity from main overarching visitor attraction. Need to engage in CCC projects to help establish brand identity as first step to fundraising and commercialising. Convince trustees.
- Develop clear strategy for contemporary programming: clear mission as a starting point for future activity.
- Sort brand statement and style guide ambition; Image licensing structure and opportunity
- We need a brand to tell our story. Talk to colleagues to create a strategic to pitch to the boss.
- Compile and share dossier of resources, contacts and examples. Evaluation. Blog.
- Talk to (colleague); communicate mission to everyone in organisation; stay focused on this & make sure activities support this.
After this, I encouraged the group to stop talking shop and relax for the last few hours of the journey – by this time it was late afternoon. But this was not very successful. After a few minutes chat about hobbies, holidays or family, people kept slipping back into discussion about our learning from the trip: ‘Did you notice that in the Rijksmuseum shop….’ ‘I’ve been thinking about what Thomas Eyck said yesterday…’ ‘What did you think about the way they did…’
Formal evaluation is to follow – I have deliberately left a few weeks between the trip and the feedback survey so that people have some time to implement learning and follow up contacts. In the meantime, participants have been generous in their comments about the experience, here are just a few of the emails that have been flying about. Apologies to any museum bosses who found their staff too shattered to function on the Friday:
- I had a great time, and came home full of ideas.
- It was great to meet you all on our wonderful adventure in Holland. I don’t know about anyone else but I did have to go home early from work on Friday as I was so exhausted!!
- What an amazing trip it was… We enjoyed visits to two great museums who laid on their senior staff and external consultants to talk through their amazing commercial collections projects.
- Thank you very much for all the time and energy you invested in our fabulous trip to the Netherlands. It was intense, informative and hugely enjoyable. I very much appreciated the time away from the Museum to reflect and discuss issues with the loveliest posse of colleagues you could hope to spend time with.
Personally, I felt that it was a real privilege to organise and accompany this trip. I learnt huge amounts from the participants as well as from the museums we visited – and also gained in confidence to take learning experiences into new territory, literally and metaphorically.