How can I create additional revenue streams from my collection online?

With international tourism to Britain not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025, on top of the cuts of the austerity era, in this article Chris Sutherns from Naomi Korn Associates outlines how organisations can use digital content to generate income.

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How can I create additional revenue streams from my collection online?

1. Introduction

Can I create additional revenue streams from my collection online?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult for heritage institutions. Organisations have had to juggle the dilemma of how to encourage access and engagement with their collections, while visitors have been reluctant or unable to come through the doors; and this has resulted in the need to generate essential revenue beyond ticket fees, food outlets and onsite shops. Galleries, libraries, museums and heritage sites have increasingly looked towards innovative digital solutions.

With international tourism to Britain not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025, on top of the cuts of the austerity era, how can organisations use digital content to keep the lights on? Whilst there is no magic bullet to income generation, and it needs to be built into a carefully costed business model for your organisation, there are a number of options that can be considered.


2. Licensing content

Heritage organisations create a huge amount of material, much of which provides licensing opportunities. If your organisation has the staff, experience, resources and infrastructure this can be facilitated in-house or alternatively via a representative agent such as Bridgeman Images or Mary Evans, although they will of course retain a share of the revenue they collect. Licensing can come in many forms and should be moulded to serve an organisation’s audiences, funding and priorities. Most UK institutions apply a blended model to their licensing activities, often allowing users free use of images within limited scholarly, non-commercial or personal projects, while commercial projects, higher quality images or material subject to additional third-party rights are licensed in exchange for fees.

Traditionally, licensing has primarily focused on collection photography; however, an institution produces significantly more content of interest to others. Installation shots from exhibitions and displays, archives, records, marketing material and interpretation can all find valuable audiences, create fuller stories, and inspire new ideas. TV and Film production companies greatly increased use of archive material during the pandemic as they sought creative options to compensate for restrictions on filming.  Since the introduction of their new website in March 2020, Tate Images have placed great importance in photography of Tate’s wider activity, signalling the intent to be representative of the whole institution rather than just the collection.


3. Brand licensing

An institution’s brand, logo and reputation are often said to be their most important and valuable assets. Ensuring these are protected by trademarks in appropriate geographical and product areas allows institutions to enter partnerships with reputable commercial companies to mutual benefit. For example, the V&A’s brand licensing programme has made licensed products across homeware, jewellery, clothing and stationery available across 72 countries. The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum Group and British Museum also have well established brand licensing programmes. When thinking about creating additional revenue streams from your collection online, don’t forget international audiences and opportunities.


4. Donations and memberships

The most straightforward way to raise revenue is simply to ask. Requesting donations is commonplace onsite though there is no reason this shouldn’t be equally viable virtually and highlighted on your online collections web pages. Users are offered substantial additional content through organisations’ websites and digital resources. Outside the heritage sector, The Guardian has avoided following many newspapers adopting paywalls by successfully asking for support from their online readers either on a repeat basis or one-off donations. Similarly, users of Wikipedia will not have to wait long before they are asked for voluntary financial contributions.

Many institutions place huge importance in their membership schemes, where in exchange for regular financial support, members are offered beneficial entry, extra access and discounts. By offering a tiered membership scheme, greater benefits can be given in exchange for more generous support.

The RAF Museum has followed the lead of many zoos in offering ‘adoption’ of artefacts within the collection. Artefacts can be adopted for a year at a time for a fee of between £25 and £2000. Schemes such as these provide supporters with a greater attachment to the institution and lead to more engagement over time.


5. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

The unavoidable explosion of NFTs (non fungible token) has opened a potential new income stream. In May 2021 The Uffizi sold an NFT featuring Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, for $170,000. It comprised a short video of the work presented as a unique, and authorised work of art, accompanied by a signed certificate from the Uffizi’s director. The British Museum also entered the field, offering NFTs of Hokusai’s The Great Wave at prices ranging from €799 up to €4999 and will follow this with a selection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner in 2022.

However, as purchasing an NFT only gives the buyer ‘ownership’ of a digital token rather than any rights within the work itself, there is still considerable uncertainty around what additional value is created to justify the exulted prices, especially in instances where identical content is freely available elsewhere. Perhaps more importantly there are ethical questions that must be considered in regards to the ‘reselling’ of heritage that was created by others, or that which is contested or is subject to other sensitivity issues. There is also significant concern about the damaging environmental impact created by the huge server space currently required to facilitate transactions and ensure that tokens cannot be copied.


6. Creating innovative new content to reach new audiences

The National Holocaust Centre and Museum produces videos of interviews with holocaust survivors, creating new copyright in the videos as well as within the interview transcripts. NHCM are excellent at using and repurposing these interviews creatively and sensitively to communicate the memory of the Holocaust for a contemporary purpose. For example, NHCM worked with a digital production company to create 3D holograms of survivors who answer questions posed by the audience using voice recognition. These interactive interviews were licensed for use in the Belsen 75 online learning package in partnership with Holocaust and other educational organisations.

NHCM also worked with the hip-hop artist Kapoo, to weave the interviews into an educational video and online resource. The website, Edek, has won multiple awards and has also been nominated for many others.


7. Paid for content

The democratic nature of the internet has created a misconception in some circles that content online is always free, however given the investment and expertise required it is not unreasonable to charge for access to premium content that provides greater insight or added value. The rise of streaming services and the need for innovative digital content, screenings or performances in lieu of or in addition to the live experience throughout the pandemic has shown that many are happy to pay for appropriately priced content online.

Birmingham Museums Trust have introduced several creative initiatives using digital technology to increase engagement and generate revenue. Birmingham Museums on Demand allows subscribers exclusive online access to two new lectures and two talks each month in exchange for a monthly fee of £20. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery also offers online tours via Zoom on three different areas of the collection as well as online school sessions subject to fees.

Additionally, they became the first heritage institution to officially partner with the video game, Occupy White Walls. The game allows users to curate their own virtual exhibition featuring artwork from around the world without the limitations of a physical space. The game’s algorithm allows users to discover more artwork that may appeal to them.


8. In-house expertise

Running a heritage organisation is a varied and complicated business, and thus organisations naturally become repositories of a huge amount of know-how. From exhibition design to conservation techniques, through to knowledge of the collections, much of this expertise could be of considerable benefit and interest to other organisations, commercial entities, and the public. Access to this sizeable knowledge can be monetised through webinars, workshops, demonstrations, or consultancy services.


9. Conclusion

Creating digital solutions to enable the monetisation of assets can be a daunting task; branching out into this realm will ultimately require development, investment, and in some cases, legal advice. However, with a bold and creative approach, the smart and effective use of technology in this area can offer immeasurable new possibilities, both in terms of generating revenue but also expanding reach.

Key to success is a good understanding of the value of your organisation’s assets, but also an understanding of the various audience segments that stand to benefit from these assets. By identifying our audiences and their associated needs, there is a great opportunity to tailor solutions accordingly and – perhaps just as important – to democratise access to culture. Data gathering lies at the heart of this. In addition to the areas highlighted within this article, the rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence data science, and communication provide further opportunities for innovative initiatives to generate revenue and expand the experience of the world’s shared heritage, beyond the physical space, with both new and existing audiences.


Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "How can I create additional revenue streams from my collection online? (2022) by Chris Sutherns, Naomi Korn Associates supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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