Ikea, purveyor of cheap Scandinavian design, is going into the museum business. A few weeks ago, the company announced a plan to turn its original store, built in Älmhult, Sweden in 1958, into a corporate museum.
The company maintains that this isn't just a marketing gimmick—this is something people are clamoring for. "People ask, 'Oh do you have the catalog from the year that I was born?'" says Michele Acuna, manager of Ikea Tillsammans, the company's corporate culture center in Älmhult, where the "Ikea Through the Ages" exhibit has seen roughly 12,000 visitors a year in the past three years. "It’s part nostalgia, part wanting to know how you can be successful [like Ikea]. People want to be inspired."
Plus, of course, it's good branding. The corporate museum has a long history all over the world: Wedgewood, the British ceramics company, established a museum devoted to displaying some of the company's early pieces all the way back in 1906. Companies like Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and even Kohler run public museums dedicated to telling their stories.
In Museum Marketing, a 2007 collection of scholarly essays, Kim Lehman and John Byrom note that corporate museums "can be a device by which a firm will seek to communicate a certain image to their customer." If a brand is trying to sell itself as being part of a long heritage, it helps to have a historical museum to back that up. And it can't help but get customers more invested in the company.
"We want to find new ways for visitors to connect with the Ikea business," Acuna says. The company is still in the process of planning what will be on display—and whether they'll be charging admission—but it will include a section on two of the company's longest-running furniture lines, the Billy bookcase and the Klippan sofa. Ikea has launched a blog devoted to collecting photos and stories for the collection from people who have owned the products, which have been sold for more than 30 years—and the best stories will be displayed in the museum.
So far, some have written to describe the childhood toy collections they kept on their bookcases. Others have listed every city that their Klippan sofa has ever been moved to. Still others claim to own Billy bookcases from before the line was designed.
Ikea estimates 200,000 people will make the pilgrimage to Älmhult each year to visit the new museum when it gets up and running in late 2015. Marketing spin aside, it's not entirely unbelievable, considering how rabid Ikea fans can be. Earlier this year, when the company announced that its popular Expedit shelving units would be discontinued in favor of a new shelf with only very slightly different dimensions, customers freaked out. A Facebook group devoted solely to saving Expedit shelves garnered almost 27,000 likes. At least some of those rabid fans must be prepared to trek to Älmhult to soak up Ikea's design history.