Museums cash in on the past

Museums have a focus on the past. It's the main part of their raison d'etre. But that does not exclude acknowledging that they have a role to play in today's society.

Chen Xiao bought a canvas bag online from the National Museum of China in Beijing, printed with three characters from an ancient painting at the museum. The way they are displayed on the bag, with its colorful straps integrated into the graphic design, the three figures appear as if they are playing with a skipping rope. It's one of the museum's popular creative cultural products.

More people, like Chen, are buying such products, either for daily use or as tourism souvenirs.

"Traditional culture contains many beautiful elements that seem far-removed from our life, but such products connect our complex desire and need to connect with the past. It's just like a bridge," says Chen, an office worker from Beijing.

In August 2019, Tsinghua University and business-to-customer platform Tmall co-released a report about the consumption of creative cultural products. The report said in the previous year, until June 2019, for the first time, the number of those who visited museums online surpassed that of the number who visited real museums, and that the amount of online visits to museums was 1.5 times of those who visited museums physically.

The report notes that the data for the 12 months prior to publishing showed that, of those who bought museum products at least three times in that period, over half were born in the 1990s and 2000s. It added that 80 percent were female, and 74 percent lived in first-and second-tier cities.

From July 2018 to June 2019, sales of such museum products on Alibaba platforms increased by three times, compared with sales from July 2016 to June 2017. Most were daily-use items, necessities, cosmetics and snacks.

Efforts of innovation

Meanwhile, more domestic museums have won over consumers due to their continuous development of innovative products.

The late Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei designed the new Suzhou Museum in Jiangsu province which opened in 2006. It soon became a city landmark.

In 2020, the museum produced a series of products with quotes from Pei, printed bilingually, in commemoration of the first anniversary of his death. The design team, before developing the final creations, had read Pei's books and watched hours of interview videos in order to select 56 of his key observations about architecture and life.

The museum also owns a 480-year-old Chinese wisteria, planted by painter and calligrapher Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Since 2013, the museum started to sell seeds from it for buyers to plant. Only 1,000 boxes are available every year, each of which has three seeds inside.

To design good products, according to Jiang Han, head of the museum's creative cultural products business, one needs to "have passion for the job, understand deeply the museum's exhibits and their history, and hold an insight into the industry".

Bookmarks, magnets and key rings used to dominate the museum's best-seller list.

In recent years, however, the museum's customers have cultivated a preference for a more varied selection of products due to the consumption upgrade in China-items like mugs and aromatherapy products, for example.

"It means a variety of products should be designed to meet the demands of customers, many of whom are youngsters," Jiang says. "Our designers were all born in the 1990s, and they can put themselves into the shoes of their peers."

In 2018, when the museum opened its official online store on Tmall, the number of annual visits quickly surpassed those to the museum itself.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, their annual sales figure dropped from 32 million yuan ($5 million) in 2019 to 25 million yuan last year.

In 2019, their online sales accounted for a third of the total, but in 2020, the ratio was about half.

"The pandemic has affected our physical stores, with a series of chain reactions. Our current development of new products is more focused on online platforms," she says.

As for the prices of these creative products, she says, those over 200 yuan are more popular in online stores than in traditional physical shops, while those at about 50 yuan are equally popular in both.

"It's probably because when someone wants to buy a decent gift online for others, they choose us," she adds.

Jiang attributes several things to their success. "It's good timing that the market needed such creative cultural products. Additionally, the museum has a good reputation and Suzhou city combines many distinctive features of the regions south of the Yangtze River," she says. "Our team is also adept at exploring these characteristics and presenting them as modern creative products."

E-commerce platforms

Since 2020, over 100 museums, galleries, scenic spots and culture and tourism institutions have opened online stores on Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba Group's e-commerce platforms, about 80 percent of which are domestic museums. The most popular museum stores on Tmall include the Palace Museum in Beijing, the British Museum, National Museum of China, Dunhuang Academy and Shaanxi History Museum.

"It's essential to work with e-commerce platforms, especially during online shopping festivals, to increase our exposure and promote our products," Jiang says.

The trend of museums opening stores on Tmall can be traced back to 2018, and the number has increased significantly each year since, according to Mo Ning, who's in charge of Tmall Culture. China's online market for creative cultural products from museums continues to enjoy steady annual growth.

In July 2018, the British Museum became the first overseas institution to open a store on Tmall, and sold out its entire stock within 16 days.

Mo says: "Our data shows that consumers like exquisite and auspicious ornaments, home outfits, cushions, stuffed toys and bags." And many museums have released their antithetical couplets and empty red envelopes, and other traditional commodities during the upcoming Spring Festival, she adds.

"The boom of the market shows that Chinese consumers attach great importance to commodities that meet their intellectual demands, and that young Chinese like traditional culture. Meanwhile, overseas museums are eyeing the great Chinese market."

For example, she says that the popularity of hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing) culture has propelled the establishment of more hanfu brands in the market. It works the same for the creative cultural products market.

"As the market becomes more mature, more design institutions and colleges are joining the industry, and more brands engage in crossover cooperation, to promote and highlight Chinese culture and arts, demonstrating a national cultural confidence."

Post-outbreak trends

Popular creative cultural products share several commonalities, according to Liu Xiaobo, co-founder of the Beijing BES Cultural Creative Development Co, which has provided services pertaining to such products to scenic spots and museums.

"These creative cultural products cater for the core demands of consumers. Some even offer interactive experiences, and can become a topic of conversation," Liu says.

He illustrates with the example of the "blind boxes" produced and sold by Henan Museum in Henan province. It fulfills the customer's dream of becoming an amateur archaeologist, simply by digging into a clod of earth with a small shovel and a brush, to discover replica treasures inside.

It sold out several times in early December, after a post sharing someone's exciting "excavation" experience suddenly went viral on the internet.

"Compared with national and provincial museums, it's difficult for those with less fame, like the city museums, to make themselves stand out in the market," he says. "If consumers are unfamiliar with a museum, it's difficult to persuade them to buy its creative cultural products, so marketing counts for a lot."

Liu says when tourists visit a museum, they like to purchase souvenirs after having an emotional connection with the exhibits. However, this kind of buying has been hit hard by the fact that museums across the country were closed for some time last year due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

The good news is that the pandemic mainly affected the physical shops run by the museums, rather than their online shops, "as the demand for such products is still there", Liu adds.

"With more disposable income than before, Chinese consumers are willing to pay for such cultural and personalized items," he says.

Tmall's data reveals that, as the economy was recovering in the second half of 2020, the sales of such products on Tmall started to increase more quickly. In 2020, the total sales figure rose by 120 percent over 2019.

"The primary goal of museums is to collect objects and present them to the public for the purpose of education. The value of creative cultural products is not about their popularity or profit, but that it serves as a bridge for museums to converse with the public," he says. "The value of creative cultural products lies in that they ultimately help boost the inheritance of Chinese culture."

He presents the Palace Museum as a good example. The museum, also known as the Forbidden City, was China's imperial palace from 1420 to 1911, and used to be forbidden to commoners in feudal times. Now it has successfully promoted its culture and told its stories vividly through its various creative cultural products.

"The success of the Palace Museum helped to propel the development of creative cultural products, with more museums riding the wave in recent years," Liu says.

He recalls that when he first entered the industry over a decade ago, it was hard to explain to others the definition of such products, let alone their benefits. Whereas, today, without additional explanation, almost everyone knows.

"Consumers prefer well-designed and finely-made products," Liu adds. "They used to pay for the added value of such products, but now they're more likely to look at the performance-price ratio."

Liu notes that some museums have embarked on crossover cooperations, often with the fast-moving consumer goods industry, to unveil specially-designed creative cultural products, ranging from cosmetics to snacks and clothes.

"It's a mutually beneficial business," Liu says. "For enterprises, their brands already have influence in the market and will have added value due to the cultural element brought by the museums, while the museums will benefit from the sales and marketing strength of these brands to sell their products quickly."

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