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How Small Museums and Big Brands can work together

There are not so many successful cases of cooperation between large commercial brands and small (often non-profit) museums. Here is the story of how a small private museum from Russia could make a joint project with IKEA and what you need to know if you want to do the same.

The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines is a Russian private (non-state) museum, founded in 2007 in Moscow. For over the 13 years of its existence it has turned from a hobby of its founders into a successful interactive museum with two branches in Moscow and one branch St. Petersburg. Today, the Museum’s collection includes about 300 arcade machines, which were produced in the USSR for a short period of time: from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. The Museum team is engaged in the research, restoration and maintenance of an important layer of the many-sided engineering culture of the USSR.

Since the opening, the Museum has always aspires to become a significant place on the map of city attractions. Around 60,000 visitors attends the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines in St. Petersburg annually. In addition to the main collection, in the St. Petersburg branch educational and cultural events are also constantly held. The Museum regularly takes part in city festivals for which the museum team prepares special projects and temporary exhibitions.

The Museum have always worked on the principle of self-sufficiency, without any additional financial revenues from the state or private patrons. Often this principle of work’s organization gives more freedom of action, but some of the projects which the museum team would like to carry out were postponed due to financial impossibility of implementation. That is why in the end of 2019 the Museum team decided to try collaboration with a big brand — IKEA Russia.

The basis of cooperation was an interactive exhibition “Halabuda: Build your childhood den”. The curator of the Museum made a deep research, and it turned out that it is hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t build houses out of sofa pillows, blankets, and whatever furniture was lying around at home as a child. Kids in Russia would often refer to their creations halabudy, or dens, and beg their parents not to dismantle them before they had another chance to play. With that exhibition, Museum has taken the childhood game of building dens from the home environment to the public space of the museum, in order to have face-to-face communication, interaction with the real world of objects, and the opportunity to share the achievements in social media.

To realize the project’s goal, it was necessary to find a partner who would ensure the construction of correct and complete exhibition space. And IKEA seemed to be a perfect candidate: the exhibition was based on the idea of arranging a personal cozy space close to the brand, the exhibition and the brand also have a common audience (families). In addition, IKEA is usually not represented in the city center, so the Museum located in the very center of St. Petersburg could interest the company. At the same time, the company supports third-party projects, including exhibition ones. It is important to note that in the affiliate offer there was no statement about the need for money, only for furniture. In the end, it was agreed that after the exhibition IKEA will take the furniture back to the markdown department.

The exhibition was based on the interior of a room of 27 square meters, inscribed by the IKEA designers in the museum space. Furniture and textiles could be used for construction, which was organized in sessions for groups of 10 people with a host. There were also two exhibition stands with information about the phenomenon of “pillow construction” with examples from series and cartoons.

Naming was an important part of the project. For the exhibition, it was chosen the Ukrainian word “halabuda”, which means a hut, or a shack. It is not very common in St. Petersburg, such buildings are simply called “houses”, but the word “halabuda” catches the eye and it is remembered. In order to make it clear what the exhibition was all about, the phrase “build your childhood den” was added. By the beginning of the project, the word “halabuda” had to be made pseudo-Swedish, because IKEA liked how it looked with umlauts.

Certainly, for the first experience of cooperation between a small private museum and a big brand, the partnership with IKEA looks quite successful: the museum received both financial support and reputational advantages. But there were also limitations and difficulties. The IKEA insisted that the brand does not collaborate with anyone, so the exhibition, which was invented and fully curated by the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, was called the “The IKEA interactive exhibition in the Museum.” There was also a limitation in choosing additional partners. 

But the main problem concerned PR. Media, which always gladly announced exhibitions of the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines for free, agreed to cover the project only for money due to the fact that IKEA is a commercial brand. So, for example, for one publication they asked 160 thousand rubles (it is about 2,300 $). The museum did not have such promotion budgets, as a result of which the coverage was small and affected the attendance. However, the exhibition was attended by more than 1500 visitors over a month, which is a quite good result for the Museum.

This story shows that fruitful collaboration between small museums and big brands is possible. The main thing is to find common ground, formulate goals that are important for both sides and try to achieve these goals through joint efforts and specific tools available to each of the parties of cooperation. However, it is important to remember that with partners it is better to discuss all possible points in advance and to understand in advance what costs may arise in connection with the partnership.

A one-time joint project, such as the described exhibition, is not the only way to interact with brands, and this is important to understand at the negotiation stage, because long-term marketing goals can push the brand to work with you. For example, this year, during the quarantine lockdown, one the Russian creative agencies made a very successful advertising campaign for IKEA Russia (Moscow regional office). The advertising campaign offered different ways to keeping kids occupied by making furniture forts.  According to the representative of the creative agency, the advertising campaign is not related to the past exhibition and has nothing to do with it. But even in this case, it can be traced how the same idea can work as a perfect marketing tool in different formats and implementations. 

About the author – Daria Zvereva

Daria Zvereva is an artistic director of the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines in Saint Petersburg. Daria arranges and curates cultural, educational, and partnership events in the Museum.

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