This blog post originally appeared on the CILIP website.
All of us who put on exhibitions know there is never enough time. Even when dates look good, there are always changes and unforeseen problems. In the run up to the opening, it really does seem to prove Parkinson’s Law – no matter how much time you have, it always seems to go up to the wire.
And then there are the things we forget – did we check the copyright on that item; what were the special conditions of that loan; does a particular lender require immunity from seizure; what light levels do we need?
Here are my top 10 tips for organising a successful exhibition:
1. Good planning and organisation
This is the most important! Make sure you have enough time and people with the right knowledge and experience to carry out the project.
Organizing exhibitions is a process; objects don’t appear on display by magic and every exhibition is the result of planning and organisation. Consider your success factors from the outset and make sure the team keeps referring to them.
Make sure you have enough time for last minute changes or unforeseen problems. Couriers have been known to take their object home if they find the gallery is still being built or the display case is not ready.
Make a list of everything you have to do. It could include design, contracts, loans, transport, customs, licensing, insurance or indemnity, couriers, copyright, display cases, web page, education programmes and marketing.
2. Adequate budget
Money is not the most important thing but you must match your exhibition to your budget. Know exactly what the budget is and stick to it. You can always expand if more money comes in.
Set up good systems for logging objects, loans, dates, etc., and keep track of everything. Sign and date agreements. Keep records.
4. Team work
Every exhibition calls for teamwork. Have one team leader and regular team meetings.
5. Good communication & negotiation
Make sure everyone in the team knows what is happening and when. Talk to each other and have frequent communication with lenders and contractors. Most difficulties can be solved by negotiation.
6. Keep to the schedule
All exhibitions are time-bound, under pressure and with fixed deadlines. Have someone in charge of the schedule who makes sure everything is on time and who can take action if things start to slide.
Make sure the schedule is written down and available for everyone. It should set out all the key stages and milestones of the project with dates and the named responsible person. Activities can be plotted on the chart to make sure programme is on time.
7. Clear areas of responsibility
Make sure everyone’s role is clear so that there are not “too many cooks…” Who is responsible for making decisions and who has the last word?
8. Emergency response
Know what to do if things go wrong. Have the team do a risk assessment at the outset and draw up a response plan. Make sure everyone knows the plan.
9. Good maintenance
Make sure the exhibition looks as good on the last day as at the opening. Peeling labels, dirty marks or broken interactives give a poor message and also reduce visitor enjoyment.
And when the exhibition closes, make sure all the hard work leaves something behind. A website, catalogue, workshop, app or partnerships can all continue to provide benefits long after the items have gone home.
The success of an exhibition doesn’t depend on size, money or visitor figures. Any exhibition can be a success with careful planning and good organisation.
About the author
Freda Matassa is author of Organizing Exhibitions: A handbook for museums, libraries and archives. Whether you organize exhibitions every day or are thinking of doing your first one, help is at hand in Organizing Exhibitions. The book is a simple step-by-step process with all the stages of putting on an exhibition from initial idea to closure and legacy. It’s designed for any size or type of display and makes sure that no key element is left out.