Museum of Cambridge seeks to ‘develop its retail experience’ – how have other museums done this well?

…and what can Cambridge’s smaller museums learn from it?

This is something I’ve been pondering for years, and follows on from an earlier blogpost here.

The item about what is effectively a museum shop is at section 4.2 of the Museum of Cambridge’s Strategy Plan 2022-27which you can read here.

In their own words:

“Our retail offering is a key aspect of our visitor experience; it is one of the first things a visitor encounters when they enter our site. Our retail space needs to reflect the Museum’s identity, activity, and exhibitions, and we will ensure our offer links to seasonal considerations such as half terms, religious and cultural festivals, and annual holidays.

We plan to create a unique retail experience that reflects who we are and what we do. It is important to us that we showcase local makers, stories, and experiences. We will also explore the potential of a profitable online retail offering, to earn much-needed funds as well as provide a retail experience for those who cannot visit us in person.”

Museum of Cambridge Strategic Plan 2022-27

I’m not going to claim any retail expertise – I’m the worst sales person in the world. Or rather it’s not one of my strengths. It never has been. My political views are too strong when things go wrong! There are, however, some things worth looking at in terms of how heritage and retail have both evolved over the decades I’ve known of what is still for me the Cambridge and County Folk Museum as Enid Porter, the long term curator in the mid-20th Century envisioned it. There’s also a responsibility on the trustees to ensure that the retail offer serves the Museum, and not the other way around – to the extent it diminishes the brand.

There is a fine line between needing the extra income that a retail offer brings, and ‘tacky’

See the Houses of Parliament Shop. You’ll find some wonderful examples of tacky tourist tat that for me at least somewhat diminishes the standing of of the buildings and institution beyond what several MPs and Peers between them have managed over the years.

It’s even more of an issue when we think about the consumer waste and sustainability of materials used for products made for the tourist market. Think of where many of the mass-produced souvenirs are made for places like London for example. When is a souvenir of a place *really* a souvenir of a place? Even more so when we consider the working conditions of the people who make them – who may well be in sweatshop labour in some far-away country, working to the detriment of their own health and environment and for the profit of someone else.See Fashion Revolution for more on this.

Looking closer to home – the Fitzwilliam Museum

You can browse through what they have here – mindful of the huge collection The Fitzwilliam has that can be sources for extensive catalogues of books and prints. At present the much smaller Museum of Cambridge simply could not match something like that.

But then nor should it try to.

It simply does not have the resources to call upon.

Both the Museum of Cambridge and the Cambridge Museum of Technology are not in the same league as the larger museums that have hordes of tour groups flowing through their doors – the massive growth in tourist numbers forcing the Museum to build a new entrance on its southern wing to accommodate the facilities such groups need – such as locker space, alongside a much-extended cafe compared to my first visit as a child during the 1980s.

This also means it’s easier for staff and volunteers to have conversations and carry out surveys with visitors – whether once-in-a-lifetime visitors, returning visitors, to friends of the Museum. What do they think should be in the shop that’s not already there? What are the things they like? Furthermore, what does the sales data show? What are people buying and at what time of year? Some of them might be unexpected at first glance – eg umbrellas – until you note the time of year sales of them peak.

Showcasing the work of local artists and craftspeople is something that local museums are known for. It’s impossible for me to make an objective comment because my own views on what I do and don’t like are way to strong to say “that shouldn’t be in there because…!” Rather, we come back to the principle of retail supporting the museum’s existence, aims, and objectives.

Charity fashionables and accessories

A number of campaigning charities have been making use of the ‘customise and drop-ship’ options that a number of manufacturers offer. Essentially an individual sole trader or an organisation sends through a design or three, and the manufacturer converts them into things like t-shirts, posters, cushions, and smartphone holders. Once the templates have been produced, it’s simply a case of waiting for the orders to come in online, and the manufacturer then prints the required design onto a blank template product, (eg a white t-shirt), packs it up, and sends it off to the customer once the funds are cleared.

Take this example from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust below – which I bought from their Teemill shop.

Above – Yellow and black – also the same colours of Cambridge United FC.

The manufacturer in this case is TeeMill.

The firm seems to have done its homework for its target audiences:

  • Aware/concerned about political/environmental issues
  • Concerned consumers
  • Wants an alternative to mainstream big brand fashions
  • Wants to demonstrate their support for a cause ‘on their sleeve’
  • Likely to have a medium-high level of education
  • Likely to be willing/able to afford slightly more expensive garments produced to higher ethical standards than mainstream discount shops

Hence the options of being able to buy items made from recycled fabrics at a slightly higher price which covers the cost of collection and recovery.

Above – an example of a ‘print-on-demand’ range for a UK charity – in this case the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

People can then look at the data that the charities concerned, report back to their trustees and the Charity Commission in their annual reports. The Charity Commission enables people to view the financial data for a specific year, or over time in recent years on specific financial stream – such as total income, or total expenditure – and plot them on a graph. The graph below is of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the variable I’ve selected is “Income – other activities”

The fall looks steep, but I can compare this with other variables. The table from the same page indicates it might have been a change in accounting procedures that accounted for the fall in one variable and the rise in another – in this case Income from Charitable Activities.

In the case of the Museum of Cambridge, you can see their reports to the Charity Commission here. You can see from the chart below the fluctuations between surplus and deficits, and the need to stabilise both income and expenditure.

One of the big hits that the small charity sector took was from austerity in central government – which significantly reduced their grants to local councils. That meant grants from local councils to small charities were hit significantly – something that in my view ministers underestimated the impact of when making the decisions from back in 2010 onwards, not least on the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s flagship idea of Big Society. He failed to appreciate that his policy of austerity in the public sector critically undermined his headline ‘good news’ theme of his election campaign.

“Could Cambridge’s small museums come up with their own designs for online print-on-demand & drop-ship sustainable retail? (ie. the Teemill model)

In principle it should be very straight forward. The challenge is sourcing and selecting which designs to use. For me, the best method would be to have annual design competitions for local schools and colleges. Each year might have a different theme. Museum staff can produce videos outlining what the theme is, and what their criteria are. They can also upload online any materials that participants will need to know to develop their ideas. Furthermore, they can also visit participating schools and colleges to encourage the children and students to take part.

By having it on an annual basis, it also creates a longer term working relationship between the Museum and neighbourhoods within the city, and enables both children and adults to learn more about the story of our city in the process.

There is inevitably the class divide to be mindful of. Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country. So inevitably the children at private schools with higher fees will have access to more, better materials than their counterparts at state schools that serve some of our most economically-deprived wards. How do we overcome this? How do we deal with the risk that every year the schools with the most affluent families are the ones that win? Do you have separate categories for state schools and private schools? Furthermore, do you run with a principle of not having ‘repeat winners’ (eg a superbly-talented candidate who produces exquisite work every year that wins – but then also means that other children don’t get the chance / decide not to enter in future years?)

Themes for neighbourhoods?

And by that I also mean the surrounding villages – because when the Museum was founded, “Cambridge and County” was not the same as it is today – as the poster from British Railways below of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire shows.

Above – before the creation of Cambridgeshire County Council as we know it today, the upper tier / shire authority which had the interchangeable names of ‘Cambridge County’ (as opposed to ‘Cambridge Borough’) and Cambridgeshire County, only covered the southern part of the county. The Isle of Ely, and Huntingdonshire used to be separate county councils. Within them were much smaller rural district, and urban district councils. For those towns that had royal charters, they were borough councils – such as Cambridge and Huntingdon.

There is already one outlet sells neighbourhood-related items – see

Given the housing growth that has happened and is happening still in and around the city, and given the new arrivals who have each brought their own histories with them – and have created and lived their own histories too, how can the new designs also reflect their stories? For example when I left primary school to go to secondary school in the very early 1990s, the Census of 1991 recorded Cambridge’s population as 101,643 people. In the 30 years that have followed, Cambridge’s population has increased to over 145,000 in the 2021 Census – even though the municipal boundaries have remained as they were when last reset in 1935. South Cambridgeshire District (based on today’s boundaries) has risen from just over 118,000 people to just over 162,000 people over the same period (1991-2021). This includes the new towns of Cambourne and Northstowe. What designs would the children of Cambourne and Northstowe come up with? What icons would they adopt as town mascots if they have not done so already? What stories and new traditions might they create? Because every settlement has to start somewhere – even somewhere like Cambridge all those centuries ago.

Food for thought?

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