Profitable Times Newsletter

Product Development

Most museums know how to develop proprietary products using images associated with the institution including logos, architectural features, reproductions of artwork, elements of exhibits, quotes and many other aspects of the museum. These images are fairly easily applied to t-shirts, bags, postcards, notecards, magnets, umbrellas, hats, journals, mugs, scarves, ties and a host of other products, pretty much all desired by visitors as a remembrance of their visit to the museum.

When in Philadelphia earlier this year on the way to the American Alliance of Museums meeting, my wife and I had an illumination conversation with Julie Steiner, the Retail Operations Manager of the Barnes Shop at the Barnes Foundation, that highlighted a different and, from my perspective, more sophisticated approach to product development. Almost all of the following are direct quotes from the conversation with Julie and follow-up correspondence.

The philosophy of the Barnes Shop comes directly from the philosophy of the founder's collecting, and his idiosyncratic way of displaying the artwork. The Barnes Foundation collection includes its well-known paintings, but also pottery, furniture, metalwork, tapestries, tools, kitchen utensils, and many varieties of decorative objects integrated together in what Dr. Barnes called "Ensembles". The ensembles are groupings of objects with paintings that emphasize continuities in art forms between disparate traditions, mediums, and periods in history.

The Barnes Shop continues this theme of merging fine art with craft by focusing not only on reproductions of the notable art collection, but also on handmade, artisanal crafts. Visitors find decorative objects, fine contemporary crafts made by local, regional and national artists, objects such as ceramics, metalwork, fabric arts, and household goods that respond directly to the traditions set by the period pieces in the galleries.

From a product development perspective, the focus is on everyday items with an emphasis on line, color, and form — forgoing, for example, traditional mugs with artwork printed on them in favor of a variety of wheel-thrown, hand-glazed ceramics by regional and national artists. The product development process is less replication of works of art, and more a collaboration with artists who use traditional design elements in their work. Sometimes these collaborations are direct, such as with the hand-forged ironwork made by Steve Bronstein of Blackthorn Forge, in direct response to the metalwork in the collection, or with the velvet journals and albums made by Adrienne Page (also inspired by the designs of the metalwork). Sometimes the connection is more organic, as in the case of Julia Simons (of Moonspoon Designs) who studied art in the education program at the Barnes Foundation, and who includes many decorative elements in her line of wooden kitchen tools that Barnes visitors will find familiar.

Julie's hope is that the Shop reinforces the unique visitor experience of the Barnes Collection Galleries, and continues the conversations of art and craft together that the collection expresses.

From my perspective, although some traditional reproductions are available, the resulting product selection is exciting, innovative and appealing. It may need some interpretation by staff and signage for visitors who don't 'get it' or are looking for more direct reproductions, but that can be an educational process itself and leads to a distinctive and remarkable museum store experience.

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