Declan McCarthy Licensing Manager showed us their great product range in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford - represented by Ian Downes of Start Licensing...

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Friday 20th May 2022 -  Summer Conference Pitcher Interviewer

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As editor of Brands & Retail UK I was lucky enough to be invited to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to view their extensive merchandise range by Declan McCarthy who has been head of publishing and licensing at the museum for over five years. 

The store I think you will agree with me from the pictures looks more like a high-end department store - with a vast array of beautiful homeware gifts, a clothing range, books, gifts for the family and museum visit souvenirs being sold with all the profits supporting the museum’s upkeep.

The Ashmolean in Oxford was founded in 1683 by Elias Ashmole and is one of the oldest university museums with the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo. It also houses the largest drawings by Raphael in the world and has over a million artefacts in its collection. The current exhibition which runs till the end of June 22 is a collection of works by the grandfather of impressionism ‘Pissarro’ and is well worth a visit.

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Declan thank you for inviting us to the Ashmolean to have a look at the museum store. What struck me was the impressive façade to the building as you walk up to it and the size of the museum inside is equally as impressive – certainly large enough to house over the million artefacts you have in the collection.

Declan - Thanks Ryan – it really is an incredible place to be. As you say, it first opened in 1683 and is in fact the oldest public museum in the world. The word ‘museum’ didn’t come into the English language until the Ashmolean opened its doors.

Q - With so many artefacts, does that prove a challenge for you in the merchandising team on what to select to be inspired by for complimentary products – I imagine you work closely with the curators as well and there is a lot of long-term planning... 

Declan - Lots of planning, yes. And being involved in everything that we publish gives us an early insight into upcoming shows, but also allows us to delve deeper into the collection than just what can be seen on display.  Having been at the Ashmolean for over thirty years has certainly given me a decent breadth of knowledge of the incredible collections that are here.

Q – You have a huge extensive range in the store, like most museums I assume publishing and stationery is one of the key products for total sales – is there anything in the range that surprises you that sells well – I think I saw Ashmolean gin as I walked around...

Declan - Certainly publications and stationery (with licenses from Flame Tree and Woodmansterne) are among the most popular products. There is an exhibition catalogue from 2005 that remains in print, unchanged, which has continued to surprise and delight me.

The Ashmolean gin, licensed through The Oxford Artisan Distillery, is certainly one of our success stories and continues to perform well. We also have wonderful silk scarves licensed with P.J. Studios and Fox and Chave that update regularly and are perennial high sellers.

Q – Your online store layout for engagement is really well thought through – something that really grabbed my attention was a ‘Wedding Gifts’ section on the store homepage – I really liked that you can offer on demand ‘prints’ of certain paintings in the collection as well.

Are online sales comparable to ‘in-person’ visit sales – or does the income from tourists and visitors coming to the museum still lead the way in terms of sales?


Declan - In-person sales are still the leading income stream for us, but as with many retailers, we have seen a huge uplift in online sales as a result of the lockdown and closure of the Museum for such a long time. It is an area of growth for us, and we continue to work to improve this.

Print on Demand has been in place for at least ten years with our partners King & McGaw. We regularly curate new images for this platform, particularly when there is a new major exhibition or project that we are running.

Q – We want to thank you for taking part in Brands & Retail UK Summer conference – what do you hope to get out of taking part – are you looking for any particular licenses to add to the museum’s product range?

Declan - The main thing for us is to get the Ashmolean name further into the licensing arena. And yes, more licenses will always be welcome! We are great to work with, swift to respond, relatively untapped, and therefore offer lots of potential. 

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Ian Downes MD of Start Licensing who represents the Ashmolean Museum for brand licensing says:

“We were keen to join the Brands & Retail UK summit in order to showcase the licensing potential of the Ashmolean. Given there is a strong foundation stone of licensees in place already The Ashmolean is well placed to work with and support more licensees. There is a lot of experience within the Ashmolean that can be used to help make the licensing path an easy one for licensees and importantly make sure that the licensed products developed are the best possible.

The museum has a fabulous collection which is a very broad one but one of significant quality.  Since working with the Ashmolean we have helped them sign a number of new licensees in categories like publishing, apparel, accessories collectible pens, stamp issues, interiors and a tea collection.

All of the licensees have been impressed by the Ashmolean’s can do attitude, the breadth of the collection and the way that creative ideas can be translated into products.

The ashmolean are also able to support licensed products through activities like social media and their membership magazine. This is real added value for licensees. I have enjoyed working with The Ashmolean myself not least because of the richness of the collection.

We are hoping to meet licensees and retailers at Brands & Retail UK from all sectors but areas of particular interest to us are retail collaborations, jewellery, children’s publishing, mail order collectibles, gardening products ( the Ashmolean has a strong connection with the Tradescant family ) and social stationery." 

Ian Downes - MD Start Licensing

We can’t wait to see Declan and Ian present the Ashmolean Museum on Day One (6th July) at Brands Retail UK Summer conference at the British Library.

If you are a licensee or retailer and would like to see the Ashmolean presentation for free or any of the other fantastic brands please visit the website for more details.

Like everyone else that works in our industry I had to leave with a gift from the shop – and no it wasn’t the gin!... Hiccup....

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