Can you take a guess at the average cost of a museum exhibition? What about the pricing of snazzy interactive technology or bold and bright signage? For museums and the wider cultural tourism industry the everyday struggle is real; for we have the momentous challenge of keeping YOU entertained, enthused and engaged. We have to bring stories to life, make objects shine and create a visitor experience that leaves you feeling fulfilled, distracted from everyday life and connected to history. To add to that challenge is the changing world we sit within. We are fighting for your attention! We are often battling against the digital age in which we are living today, a society that encourages and enables us to spend hours and even days, alone and engrossed in a tiny, hand-held digital device. Why come to a museum and learn when you can sit alone and delve into the depths of the internet via laptop, mobile phone or tablet? So we are faced with the challenge of creating something that’s worth leaving those laptops and putting down those phones and to do that, is no small feat…
Here at NESM we are all about creating a space that is inclusive, hands-on and relevant. Exhibitions that you find relevant to you, your life and your interests, hands-on so you can be entertained whilst learning a thing or two and inclusive, so you don’t walk into a room and feel like you’re being lectured, or better-still, bored to death by signage that’s as wordy as Shakespeare talking about world history. But to do this costs time and money, and for independent museums like us, both of these are precious (and rare!) commodities. So what can an independent museum like us do to create an exhibition which is on par with those larger, funded museums?
At NESM, our average budget to create a brand new exhibition is around £5,000. This always includes the design of the exhibition, the build, the installation and the opening but this sometimes can include remedial building work or major decorating and the transportation of some of our vehicle collection or objects. For most museums/heritage sites, the average cost of a new exhibition is between £300-£500 per square foot and this DOESN’T include staffing costs, building works, such as electrics or safety works, like installing fire extinguishers or new alarm systems. So with museum standard cabinets or cases costing anywhere between £2,000 and £10,000 per unit, nifty interactive tech costing anywhere from £50 to £3,000 per unit and interpretation boards (signs) costing anywhere between £150-£500 per board (depending on size/quality) how is it possible to create something engaging without spending the earth?
The answer is a rather eco-friendly one: RECYCLE!
Here at NESM we have crowned ourselves (quite rightly) the masters of reinvention, surplus handcuffs become exhibition barriers, duplicate helmets become light fittings and old lockers become display cases. Cost saving methods like this not only save us pennies, but reduce our landfill contribution and give new life to old or unused items.
For fittings and features that can’t be reinvented we rescue and relove surplus items from elsewhere, recently acquiring ClickNetherfield cases (retailing at around £10,000) from a museum that was closing down. Previously we have found homes for interactive tech stations, cases and storage systems which ordinarily would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Recycling these highly expensive fittings that were destined to be broken up or sent to landfill allows us to spend money elsewhere, on vital building works to restore our 120 year old station or on crucial vehicle restorations. This system of sharing resources and fixtures and fittings goes both ways, at NESM we send on cases, cabinets and other fixtures to be reloved and reused by other sites too. Most importantly, this method of sharing, reusing and reinventing creates a great community and opens up the possibilities for smaller museums but it also vitally steps away from the one-use culture that is sadly so prevalent in the museum sector.
In our bid to keep costs low and standards as high as possible, we also acquire some of our technology used in our interactive spaces from alternative sources; working with universities and their students who are creating new apps, resources or software, not only supporting our community but investing in new talent and skills.
Another big help for us, is that we keep to budget by doing a lot in house. At NESM we are fortunate enough to have a diverse (but small) team who come from all kinds of backgrounds and have all manner of skills, enabling us to reduce our use of sometimes-expensive outside contractors and therefore, saving on things like digital design for our interpretation and graphics, sign writing, exhibition design and technology installation. Involving our entire team, including volunteers, also enables us to deliver a varied and co-curated exhibition which reflects our community and ensures everyone is valued and involved.
We think our methods are a positive, community-driven, cost-saving and eco-friendly way forward but we know not all museums engage in this. Enabling smaller museums to be creative and deliver outstanding exhibitions on smaller budgets can only be a good thing for us all, so we are very proud to be one of those museums that can do a lot with a little.
For more information about how we form our ideas, create our exhibitions or our methods in general keep up-to-date with our blog! Alternatively, we are always happy to chat and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or catch up with us on social media.
Like the sound of NESM, how about working with us? We have lots of volunteering roles available at the moment. Check them out on https://do-it.org/organisations/national-emergency-services-museum