Museum pieces dusted off for a new market

Licensing: the V&A is developing income by allowing private businesses to make use of its collection of designs

IN A BID to boost its finances, the Victoria & Albert Museum has begun authorising companies at home and abroad to use some of the designs in its collections on a range of products.

In recent weeks the museum, which boasts the world's finest collection of the decorative arts, has signed licensing deals with a framing gallery in Saudi Arabia and with Royal Selangor International, a Malaysian pewter manufacturer. The agreements others made in recent years with a range of companies in Japan, the US and mainland Europe. The products being sold under the V&A brand name include such items as bedding, textiles, ceramics and glassware.

The initiative is the responsibility of V&A Enterprises, the commercial arm of the museum, which, like equivalents at other museums, had been best known for operating a shop and mail-order catalogue. But Michael Cass, managing director of V&A Enterprises, says the licensing programme is "something that sets us apart" from other commercial fund-raising activities by museums. He says it also takes the museum back to its origins, since it was known in the 19th Century as the Museum of Manufactures. He would not say how much the licensing contributes to the division, but the commercial arm over all gives the museum about £500,000 a year in profits and rents.

Mr Cass says the shop and catalogue are progressing well, but he sees the licensing programme, launched four to five years ago, as an important development area. "We started in a smallish way with a lot of paper products, but we're branching out," he said, adding that the project is taking on an international flavour because "the collections themselves are very international".

The deal with Royal Selangor, sealed within the past month, has its roots in the company's purchase two years ago of Comyns, a respected British silverware manufacturer. Royal Selangor, which holds a royal warrant from the Sultan of Selangor state, will make products to designs inspired by those in the museum. It believes the V&A endorsement, added to the quality of the products, will make them attractive the world over. The first range of pieces will be unveiled next year and further collections are being developed.

Royal Selangor now gains significant revenue from the tourist trade in Malaysia, but hopes for strong growth in exports, particularly to Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, the US and Britain. PK Yong, the managing director, says: "We trade internationally with products based on fine design. What better association could there be than the endorsement of our design excellence by the renowned Victoria & Albert Museum."

Mr Cass added that working with manufacturers in this way raises money and raises consciousness about the museum.

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