girl looking at pictures in an art gallery exhibition

Curating an external exhibition

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, planning, Using archives and collections

As a freelance curator, I do get asked to mount exhibitions for other organisations, sometimes in their location, sometimes not. Putting on an exhibition of unfamiliar objects with an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar location brings one or two challenges and more than a few questions. Invariably an initial conversation goes something like this:

‘Hello, are you a curator?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Can you put on an exhibition for us? What will it cost? How long will it take?’
‘Yes I can. First I need a few details about what you’d like, when you’d like it, how long for, who does what….’
‘Oh. I thought it was just putting pictures on walls?’

In case you’re unfamiliar with museum exhibitions, here are a few initial questions and considerations before a budget/timescale can be set. What is the size of the exhibition? Where will it be? How many objects might there be? How long will it run for? What do you want to see in it? What is the exhibition saying and to whom? And at what level to say it – beginner, intermediate, expert? What are the aims of the exhibition? Do they fit the aims and mission statement of the display location? Will the objects be worthy of display? Will they be in good condition? Will the organisation’s intended budget cover their initial ideas? (Usually, no!) How will objects move from place to place? Who will be responsible for packing/crating them? How will they be physically displayed? Who will organise and pay for the mounts and frames? Who will actually get up on a ladder to put paintings on walls? Who will condition check them on arrival? Who is responsible for advertising and promotion? Who selects each object – those with subject specialist knowledge or those with an oversight of how museum exhibitions work? How will the exhibition be monitored and evaluated and by whom? How long might research take – what information will be provided to the curator? Who will develop the concept and write the panels – those with the knowledge of the subject or those who know about writing text for visitors? Who decides the layout, lighting, display? Is there anything that already exists that can be re-used? Who is responsible for finding, putting together and mounting any audio visuals? What of insurance? Who pays for it in transit or in the museum? Who puts the objects in position? What’s in the budget for interactives? And speaking of budgets…who sets the budget? And who, from the company or organisation, will liaise with the curator – marketing, purchasers, company historians, secretaries, technicians, volunteers, MDs, CEOs? Depending on the organisation’s structure, all might have to be prepared to give some time to make it happen.

You see, it’s not all ‘just putting pictures on walls’. A simple one room exhibition of mixed media will take a minimum of three months (and that’s rushing it) exhibitors at a national museum will probably allow three years to plan and implement something new. As to budgets – a very simple temporary display will probably be upwards of £10,000; a blockbuster will be many millions. Most of the time taken is in liaison and making arrangements. Even a simple thing like a difficult mount for a single item might take hours to research, order and present. Curators are keen to do as much as possible to ensure that the exhibition works as a whole; clients are keen to do as much as possible to avoid curatorial fees. Discussion, early decisions about who does what and open lines of communication are key to smooth relations with stakeholders.

If you’re thinking of putting on your own exhibition – perhaps for an important anniversary (congratulations!) – here are The Company Curator’s Top Tips:

1) It will take longer than you think. Work well in advance. Think years, not months.
2) Have an accessible budget ready to go.
3) Communication and early, transparent decisions about who does what – in writing – are vital.

Happy exhibiting!

green and white emergency exit sign with peson running

Emergency planning: company collections and archives

Posted Posted in Environmental monitoring, Opinion, planning

green and white emergency exit sign with peson running Most companies have undertaken emergency planning involving staff and visitor evacuation, IT and furniture removal – depending on the threat –  but how many of you include your historic company collections and archives in your plan? For instance, how many of you would even consider the unique antique oil painting of the company’s founder in the rush to remove the easily-replaceable-backed-up-centrally-overnight laptop?

If your plan does include your company’s irreplaceable history, bravo and well done – you’re on the right track not only to keeping your own history, but a history that will have impacted on the town and society around it and upon the business world too. What of those who don’t?

Emergency planning is often seen as a theoretical exercise carried out only for insurance or policy purposes. This is fine until it’s needed. At that point you realise how important it is.

Years ago, as a museum curator, I created an emergency plan. It featured a description of the museum and collections, the evaluation, access and salvage procedures and the correct post-emergency process. It  had an appendix of emergency contacts and detailed where to find useful items like the disaster boxes, ladders and torches (by all the doors – elementary. Are yours?)

This was an interesting theoretical exercise  until I was contacted at 4am one dark, windy, winter morning to be told that ‘the highest ever storm surge will hit our area in four hours’. I had to persuade the police to let me through a total road block ‘You understand that if you die it’s nothing to do with us?’ in order to get to the museum. On arrival, my fab local team were there already assessing the situation, disaster boxes open and waiting. The boxes included lists of the most important items to remove, in what order, and what tools were needed to remove them. All the necessary tools, equipment and clothing to save the collections was in the boxes. We moved the most important items upstairs while the flood waters rose and the police and fire engines kept vigil, along with camera helicopters overhead.

In the event, the flood waters missed the building by only 30 feet. Businesses down the road were not so lucky. Another museum was watching the advancing flood from the front door when they realised that water was bubbling up through the floorboards. They had their own emergency plan which had enabled them to save their collections and demonstrate their survival skills. Can your company demonstrate that?

If you have an emergency plan, do check that your historical assets are included. Tables, chairs, PCs  etc can be replaced – the physical record of your company’s history cannot.

Using company archives to aid change management

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, planning, Using archives and collections

Companies going through a period of change – perhaps new leadership, redundancies, reshuffling, mergers or buyouts – might find that a historical exhibition of the company’s collections and archives can help to effect good change management for its staff and clients.

 

Change is inevitable in any dynamic, forward-facing organisation but it can lead to low staff morale and unfavourable customer opinions. It is therefore beneficial to be able to show that change is positive and leads to better things.

 

Any company that has a good, varied collection of items can display them. A change display can be used in three ways – firstly as a cost effective way of showing how historical challenges within the company were overcome, secondly to show the longevity of the company and its strategies for implementing, accepting and embracing change and thirdly to show the company the natural progression from the past to the future.

 

A cost-effective way of showing that change is positive is to use the company’s own archives and collections to let the past inform the future. By seeing what’s been done, similar mistakes need not be made. Equally, as times change, it could be the case that something that did not work a while ago could be revisited and would work well now. Previous changes can be looked at in the light of the benefits that arose – and some companies might be brave enough to showcase their mistakes and say ‘here’s what we learned from that’. By showing what worked well, companies can show their improvements.

 

Often, merely having a historical exhibition – particularly if the company is impressively old – brings about a feeling of trust, of calm, of the link between longevity and wisdom, of safety in the knowledge that change has occurred before and will occur again, and that it will all be OK. A good set of photos, documents, machines or products can make a snappy statement about change and our ingrained worry about new. Exhibitions can be used to get people over the concept that ‘we’ve always done it like that’, as they prove that actually, it was done this way before that, and another way before that.

 

Exhibitions can also be used to show the change that’s about to happen. For instance, a new CEO could have an exhibition of portraits of previous CEOs shown alongside their aims and achievements with the new CEO’s portait, a personal introduction and an outline of future aims and goals. A manufacturing or production company could show previous techniques and use the exhibition to introduce new techniques and innovations and explain the reasons for the change.

 

Successful companies will cost-effectively use their historical archives and collections as change management; they are a powerful tool and should be seen as such.

Should a company display its assets?

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Other, planning, Using archives and collections

I asked my husband what his employer’s company does about its history. ‘It’s all in an archive, it’s not on display’. I asked why not, and he said that the company was very forward facing and had designed all its branches and head office to all look identically modern, with the same branding, the same carpets, curtains, paint – even the prints had all been selected to be identical across the nation, so that when customers walked into any branch they felt recognition; it was the same as the one they usually used.
I know that when I walk into one of the branches I feel recognition. I recognise that I could be in any part of the country – it’s faceless; it’s soulless; it’s a cultural and historical desert – and for me, somebody with a historical background, that’s a shame. By being identical they are without identity, which is a pity as that company has traded since 1840s – that’s 175 years of people, products, innovation, change, which is all hidden under the bland face of modernity.
I know I’d perceive that company as more interesting, more engaging, more trustworthy, if I could see its origins, see the work that’s gone into it, see how politics and world events have changed its aims and outlook, or even just see a painting or lithograph of some of the leaders who’ve gone before. But that’s not modern. Modern seems to be about forgetting history, smoothing over everything into one-size-fits-all blandness. I don’t know that this helps anybody, companies least of all.
By displaying the origins of a company, the company is saying that it has a history to be proud of. It boasts longevity and staying power. It shows that it can weather storms, that its leadership has worked well for decades – centuries possibly – and that it will go on working. Thoughtfully chosen items bring a little of this history to customers and clients and show the human, unidentical side of a business and this is what those customers and clients respond to – for we are all human and we are not identical.