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Why museums and galleries stretch way beyond beautiful buildings

Design Museum rendering by Alex Morris

The Design Museum re-opened its doors this weekend at its new home, the former Commonwealth Institute, partly funded by the new luxury flats surrounding this showpiece address.

Also in the spotlight are the V&A and the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, following the announcement that they will share a new permanent exhibition space in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. This is commercial branding’s equivalent to a joint venture between Nike and Adidas.

And just as that would have agency strategists and creatives shouting 'Action Stations,' so does this pull our attention to museum and gallery branding – something we’ve been seeing a lot more of in recent times.

The old world of museums as quiet, cavernous halls displaying collections of objects for those willing to make the trek is having to adapt. While perhaps branding was once sniffed at in cultural institutions as the dark arts of commercial witchery, today it is a key part of the show. In an age of flashy soundbites and stories told dramatically, most commonly on a digital platform, museums recognise the need to stretch well beyond their physical boundaries.

It’s a common theme in the art world, affirmed by Ben Rawlinson-Plant, managing partner at Brunswick Arts: “Just like every other sector or industry everything has become internationalised: everyone is part of a global conversation, and cultural brands need to communicate at this level. Long gone are the days where cultural institutions can think nationally; they are all thinking about how their proposition translates across the world.”

There are two distinct facets to this ‘global conversation,’ on the one hand it’s about audiences which, for a museum, are now more likely to be many miles away ‘visiting’ digitally rather than physically. At the V&A Kati Price, head of digital media, is very clear about the role of the brand in this context: “More than four times as many people access the V&A online as visit our Kensington and Bethnal Green venues so the brand experience online is incredibly important.

“At the same time both our audiences and programme of events is very diverse so we rely on the brand to connect all these elements with a consistent and relevant experience.”

On the other are the growing collaborations between cultural institutions, such as the V&A’s forthcoming venture with the Smithsonian. There are countless others, for example next year will see the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, in partnership with the Louvre in Paris, but wholly owned by Abu Dhabi.

The brand role is both obvious and important: it is a framework for the proposition and an asset that is being leveraged. Ben Rawlinson-Plant said on the subject: “This is quite different from the old franchise model in which arts organisations own and run venues in different countries. There will be sharing of ideas and skills. The financial dimension is obviously a key part of the equation.” Which naturally leads us to the matter of funding.

Arts institutions cannot rely on ticket sales and government funding to support their work, especially when what they do has become so multi-dimensional. Again this is where brand steps in, with strong clear brands offering powerful associations to potential partners and funders.

Then there is the make up of the modern museum. Its products and services, if you like. Where once this might have been limited to a permanent exhibition and a number of annual shows today museums not only have exhibitions which often travel or are put together in collaboration with other cultural institutions, but also educational programmes, content rich digital platforms, social media activity, as well as shops and cafes.

Just as in the commercial world brand helps to unify product and service ranges, conferring on them a clear sense of family, the same is true for museums and galleries.

A few years ago when the Serpentine Gallery grew to encompass two locations, and an ever diversifying calendar of events, it rebranded with Pentagram’s help; a process that went well beyond the logo, as explained by Rose Dempsey, head of media relations, Serpentine Galleries: “Developing the brand for us was about articulating the spirit of what we do: over recent years the Serpentine had expanded its programme to embrace and invent new forms: Pavilions, Marathons (Festival of Ideas), the performative Park Nights series, the Edgware Road project and art exhibitions within the park itself so for us the brand is a way of capturing the interdisciplinary nature of our work and focusing all those dimensions into one story.”

Museum and gallery brands are no longer primarily associated with physical venues, as arresting and impressive as they may be. In many cases they have actually become that perfect brand definition: a promise. A flexible promise around a distinctive way of thinking, or looking at the world. A promise that can be channelled and exported: to diverse audiences, as the basis for international educational programmes, as vehicles for editorial content, as assets to be shared with or leveraged by other institutions or corporate partners, and much more.

Paddy Sutton is creative director at Morar