Behind the Scenes of an Exhibition: The Life of Objects Shop Range

Liza Leonard, Visitor Engagement Co-ordinator: Reception and Retail writes:

The shop is a key part of the Library’s offer for audiences. We know that visitors expect to take a bit of the Library’s collection home with them; whether it’s a magnet of the Historic Reading Room or a print from a 15th century book – our visitors find something special in this place that they want to keep and cherish beyond their visit.

Over the past two years we have developed ranges of products for the shop which reflect and support the Library’s special exhibitions. We’ve used images of exhibition collections to create bespoke products. For Darkness and Light our exhibition that explored our Gothic collections we were able to use a number of amazing images from Anatomia by Andreas Vesalius and Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones by William Cheselden on a range of different products including notepads, tote bags, lens cloths and postcards. Similarly we used images from books in the exhibition Magic, Witches and Devils to create prints, magnets and postcards. We’ve found that products created from the images in the collection are really popular as it’s a way for our visitors to deepen their engagement by taking some of the exhibition home with them.

As well as creating bespoke products for the exhibition ranges we also source a number of ‘off the shelf’ products that complement the theme of the exhibition. For the range for Off Beat we included a number of book titles which were relevant to the exhibition themes; the poet and publisher Jeff Nuttall and 1960’s counterculture. What makes our shop offer unique – is the diversity of our collection. You may not expect to find an original copy of Beat Poetry alongside a 16th century print of the Devil but this reflects our collection. With over 1.4 million items spanning 5000 years, we have the opportunity to surprise and delight our visitors through our retail offer.

The Life of Objects Range

Life of Objects Shop Items (Ducks)
Life of Objects Shop Items (Ducks)

When creating an exhibition range I usually use a mixture of bespoke and off the shelf products. It’s great to be able to use the collections to create bespoke products but this can be labour intensive and it’s not always possible to meet minimum quantity requirements and so bespoke and off the shelf can create a good balance.

In order to create a good exhibition range which reflects and helps to tell the story of the exhibition it’s important that I’m involved in the exhibition process from the start. I was very lucky to have access to the items which were going to be displayed at one of the first working group meetings. It was really exciting to see the amazing mix of items that were going to be displayed and there wasn’t a book in sight! The stories behind the items and the individuals in each collection are really interesting; how did Isabella Banks end up with the lining from Napoleon’s Coffin? It’s really fascinating!

I was really excited after this meeting but I realised that although the items to be displayed in the exhibition are really interesting they wouldn’t necessarily translate to commercial products. Unlike past exhibition ranges I realised that due to the limited commercial visual impact of the items, bespoke products would be difficult to produce. This meant that the range would mainly need to be created from off the shelf products.

The next stage in the process was to think about the look and feel of the exhibition range. The items in the exhibition are all from different periods over the last 200 years. This works really well in the exhibition but I was concerned how well this would translate to a small exhibition range on one table in the shop; how well would a Victoriana style item work next to modern art from the 1960s? For this reason I decided that the range should have a feel from a particular period represented in the exhibition and so I decided to create a range of products which had a Victorian style. As we already have a Victorian range in the shop that sells really well I feel confident that this will appeal to the visitors.

The Life of Objects exhibition is a really interesting insight into the different objects people collect. I felt especially inspired by the objects from Isabella Banks and how they seem really different, unusual and random. I decided to create a range of products that echoed that random and unusual feel. The shop has already started to build a reputation for stocking some lovely unusual products and so I have embraced that for The Life of Objects Exhibition range.

Life of Objects Shop Items (Sea Horses)
Life of Objects Shop Items (Sea Horses)

The next stage was to source products that would fit into the style and theme I had decided on for the Life of Objects exhibition range. From existing and new suppliers I put together a long list of potential products and used images of them to see how well they visually fitted together. The next step was to narrow down the long list so anything that didn’t fit as well visually with the theme of the exhibition was dropped from the range. I then thought about the price of the products, is there a good mix, is there something in the range that most people could afford as well as some higher price point items?

Although there are no books in the exhibition I felt that it was important to include books by people featured in the exhibition within the product range and so I have sourced titles by Elizabeth Gaskell, Walt Whitman, Lord Byron and The Manchester Man by Isabella Banks. I was especially pleased to find a local publisher for The Manchester Man.

The next stage was to order all of the products. Once the products arrived I then arranged them in the shop ready for the start of the exhibition.

I hope that visitors will feel inspired by the Life of Objects shop range and want to take home a product from the shop to add to their own collection of Objects.


Share your experience of The Life of Objects: #jrlobjects @TheJohnRylands

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