If you have any friends or family who work in the museum sector you’ll be all too familiar with ‘exhibition brain’.
Someone suffering with ‘exhibition brain’ can usually be spotted by their bedraggled appearance, tired eyes and the sacks of books they drag behind them. Well, perhaps that’s just me. But it’s not an overstatement to say exhibition planning and delivery can be all consuming.
As a self-funded museum and charity working to tight budgets we tend to keep exhibition planning, design and delivery in-house; that means everything from designing the space to writing the interpretation panels (the signs you read). Together our team plan, design, install and deliver the exhibitions you see but what exactly does that mean? Well read on for a very simple run-down of some of the stages of exhibition planning and delivery.
Every good exhibition starts with a solid idea but with so many objects and so many years of history, how do you possibly decide what to focus on?
Well the short answer is, we ask you guys!
Once we have a range of topics we look to the feedback given to us by members of the public to finally settle on an idea. Usually this initial selection of topics is guided by a particular project, collection or event but the final idea is usually something that our visitors have found most interesting.
We then spend time looking to see how the idea would work, what objects we might look to include and what the final product might look like before starting on any formal plans.
Plans, schedules and designs
After the idea has gone through various stages we get to one of the most important points: planning!
It’s crucial that an exhibition is planned carefully and mindfully; from concept to project management, a good plan goes far.
Whilst it’s not the most glamorous part of an exhibition project, it is the most critical and can take an awful lot of time. Here we detail things like what the exhibition will look like, what our target audiences are, what the learning objectives might be and what stories we are looking to tell. As the exhibition begins to come to life, we can also think about important things like accessibility and learning. These core elements then go on to guide every other decision which enables us to keep consistent, even when individual aspects change.
When we’ve settled on themes, aims and a general design we can go about planning a schedule. Exhibition projects can vary but often they take months of work so this needs to be carefully planned and managed. At NESM, so much of our work is done by volunteers who often have other commitments so tasks have to be carefully allocated and planned.
Once we’ve outlined a comprehensive project management plan we can begin on the next steps…
When we’ve established a plan and early designs we can begin to select which objects will be displayed within the exhibition. This is another incredibly difficult task; how do you pick the best objects when you have so many to choose from?
Well, objects are selected based on a number of factors. These include the object’s condition, size and material as well as how it relates to the exhibition’s themes. We look to each object to see what it might tell us about our theme/story, asking questions like what does it show? How does it illustrate the historical period/topic? How interesting/engaging is it?
Once we have a shortlist of what objects might be candidates for display, we go through a rigorous process of final selection. This is where we have to be really strict about what will and won’t make it.
The lucky objects that are selected for their time in the limelight will then be re-examined. All of the information we hold on the objects will be collated and work begins on drawing up a care plan. This basically details how the objects need to be displayed and looked after during the exhibition to keep them safe.
The objects that don’t quite make the cut remain in our stores, awaiting their chance to shine another time.
Another significant part of the exhibition planning process is interpretation writing. This can be undertaken by an outside company or professional but this is something we often take on ourselves. When we are writing the interpretation ourselves we spend many months on planning before we begin to write the initial drafts. Planning includes consideration of everything, from font size and colour to language and writing style.
We work with everyone on the team to create a guiding document that gives us an outline of what our text panels ought to look, read and feel like. Using national guidelines we aim to produce a final product that is accessible to as many people as possible. This is usually done by using simple themes and language.
Making sure we stick to our earlier plan which details the narrative and topics we want to focus on, we spend many months collecting research that informs our text panels. We speak with consulting academics, researchers and historians which gives us a really great, rounded historical knowledge. After this we then spend many more months thinning down the masses of research into engaging, manageable themes and select the core learning objectives.
When we have a good understanding of the research and the aims of the panels we can begin to write! This process takes many more months and produces many drafts. The drafts are then passed on to other members of the museum team as well as associates outside our team to ensure they are engaging and understandable. Once we move closer to the finished product the text is proofed rigorously.
When we have our final text product this then goes on to our multi-skilled CEO Matt, who turns the text into fully designed, eye-catching panels.
Our golden rules when writing text:
1.Audience! Remember your audience.
2.Cherry-pick. It’s impossible to tell every story, choose the core stories and points to highlight.
3.Keep it accessible. Use simple and accessible language. Avoid technical terms and jargon and try to write for young people.
4.Fun! Try to make sure the text is fun and interesting to read.
5.Organised and relevant. It’s crucial that the text relates to the themes, narratives and objects in a clear way.
6.Reframe don’t force. Try to offer statements and information that encourages a visitor to rethink or reframe a perspective or understanding instead of forcing our own opinions or perspectives.
7.Pyramid. Remember the pyramid. Most important, core information at the top of the board with less important, but still interesting information at the bottom.
Whilst the behind-the-scenes stuff is super important and can take anywhere from six months to a year to do, we also have to physically prepare the space!
Space design (not NASA related)
Once we’ve got our plans nailed down, we can begin to work on the space. This is the point we can plan and create everything from the display cases to bench seating and interactive play points.
The space is designed around the visitor; at least as much as you can in a 19th century police, fire and ambulance station! This means we consider things like how the space is used, how comfortable it is and how a visitor might navigate it. The placement of everything is carefully considered even if it means working around the quirks and charms of a building like ours.
Work within the space also includes important things like checking the utilities (electric points etc) and updating where necessary.
Like the rest of the exhibition process most of the building and installation work is completed in-house by our team of volunteers who have had careers in construction or design. They work tirelessly to bring to life all of the plans and drawings.
Once the final product is finished our team roll their sleeves up for the big install.
The final stage
The install! It’s at this point we can begin to get excited. The light is at the end of the tunnel and we can begin to look forward to opening and seeing visitors enjoy the space. The install involves many staff and many hours. It is usually done in stages.
The builders and volunteers finalise their jobs and a big clean is completed. Once we are looking spick and span staff begin to install the interpretation panels and graphics. This usually takes longer than anticipated…
Following this our interactives are installed and the checks are done to ensure they work as planned.
Finally, the objects are installed. Carefully and slowly, each object is brought and unpacked before being placed in their relevant cases. Again, this can be a painstaking process that involves fiddly mounts and structures to hold or suspend the objects.
Once we’ve installed the objects and closed the cabinets off, final cleans and checks can begin.
Once our tired staff have slept, we all return for one last check-over. This is usually to ensure there are no technical glitches or errors that have been missed. A final clean is then conducted and we are ready to open to public!
Exhibition openings usually happen in stages. We put on an event for early access which is a first-look for any VIPs and a chance for any press or media to take snaps and then we open officially to the public. This is both the most exciting moment for the team and the point in which we all breathe a huge sigh of relief!
Whilst opening gives us all a chance to breath it doesn’t stop there. We then look to begin the follow-up work. This is usually a programme relating to the exhibition which might include things like a series of talks, school visits or general activities like art or even dance classes. In some instances, like for our Blood, Bandages and Blue Light exhibition, we even released a book as part of the exhibition process.
Once the dust has settled we eventually review the process from top to bottom to make sure everything has gone to plan. This includes getting public feedback to make sure the exhibition met its aims. Once we are satisfied we then take yet another nap and wake up again to begin to plan for the next one.
PHEW! And that was just a rough run-down of exhibition planning and delivery here at NESM. We left out the major marketing, press and planning that’s also involved as well as the collections planning, conservation work and many hours of graphic design. But the final product makes the many months of work worth it. As a self-funded, independent museum each exhibition feels like a victory. We hope that as you come and enjoy our brand new exhibitions (we’ve been very busy over lockdown!) you’ll feel that way too.
For more information about what’s new, our exhibitions and information about your visit. Please go to www.visitnesm.org.uk