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Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Outsourcing exhibits rather than producing them in-house may seem like a money-saving strategy, but it may actually cost museums some-thing greater in the long run—exhibit quality. There are two reasons for this. First, for-profit exhibit companies need to make a profit on what they produce, often preventing skilled employees from producing their best work. Second, museums generally have better access to specimens and information than does an outside contractor.

When I was a model maker at a specialized exhibit company, I was tasked with making a model of a small prehistoric shark. I was given some basic illustrations copied from a book and told I had two weeks to complete it or else the company would lose money on it. Later that year, I was employed at a university museum and asked to make a similar-sized prehistoric shark model. This shark, Cladoselache fyleii, is well preserved in the Cleveland shale, and excellent fossil references are available at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH).

I visited the CMNH a couple times, meeting with Mike Williams, the vertebrate fossil curator at the time. In exchange for his consultation, we provided the CMNH with a copy of our shark model. Including all the research and travel time, we invested a couple hundred hours. At the end we had a much more detailed and accurate model than what my former employer was still producing. John Maisey, curator and fossil shark expert at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), saw the CMNH model and wanted a similar one for his museum. Our museum figured out what it would cost to make another copy and charged the AMNH accordingly for time and materials.

Being able to work closely with curators while designing and fabricating an exhibit saves time and money by avoiding costly changes and produces more accurate results. Curators usually want changes made to an exhibit because they were not previously able to visualize something as a whole, or walk around an object or through an environment. For example, when dealing with objects of whale-sized proportions, curators too often must work with either individual components or scaled-down representations. They rarely get the opportunity to see something fully assembled until it is almost ready for display, and by that time significant changes are often difficult and costly.

In-house exhibit preparators working alongside curators can create a better final product because problems can be resolved early. In some cases, the curator may get to see the object in a different way or how it functions through the process of being assembled. When exhibits are produced far away, the curator does not have as much opportunity to check on things, and there can be significant time delays between communications.

Many project managers will say that personnel—i.e., wages, benefits, etc.—are the greatest expense in any business. If a museum buys its exhibits from an outside vendor, then the costs of the company’s employees are simply included in the cost of the final product, as well as other overhead costs and the profit margin. It is true that an outside vendor can hire cheaper labor on a temporary basis to do less skilled jobs, but so can a museum in most cases.

If museum exhibit staff are idle—not producing a product—then I would agree that the cost of their employment is poorly spent. A skilled exhibit staff is a valuable asset. It makes good business sense to give them worthwhile projects to work on so as to maximize the value of their time.

For example, when staff are not busy on a current project they can work on segments of a future exhibit, such as making components for a new diorama. Dioramas are inherently labor intensive but in the long run provide some of the best values when comparing the ratio of labor spent to visitors served.

Exhibit staff also maximize their value when they can do work for other museums. Tom Bantle, director of exhibits and facilities at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in Michigan, says that their production facility has been used to produce exhibitry for their museum and also for other museums and non-museum institutions and businesses. Similarly, the London Museums Group has the right idea with museums sharing their staff expertise with other institutions in the organization.

Exhibit work can also be shared in other ways. A museum with a nice cast fossil whale mount could make a trade with another institution for a cast of a giant ground sloth skeleton. A museum that has great molding and casting facilities could provide that service to other institutions.

Exhibit staff may have other uses within the museum, depending on the size and type of the institution. Typically, they have the knowledge and skills to make and/or repair almost anything. Education departments always need things repaired due to the intensive use of hands-on items. Curators and other researchers may need special assistance in putting something together or modifying research equipment. To aid in the research of animal behavior in the field and lab, I’ve made latex rubber models of lizards into which motorized devices were installed. I’ve seen exhibit staff use their talents to decorate a museum for special events. Sometimes they make museum-themed objects to give to donors, scale models of future exhibit halls to entice donations, items for sale in the museum gift shop, or decorations and display furniture that tie in with special exhibits. Exhibit staff are very good at making interesting and unique things that cannot be purchased off any vendor’s shelves.

Before your museum considers eliminating exhibit staff positions, think long and hard about how and where you choose to spend your limited dollars. High-quality exhibits will last longer and therefore be a better value. When I think of some really nice older habitats and dioramas, and consider how many museum directors those exhibits have outlived, I can see the value of in-house exhibit production.

Dan Erickson is formerly exhibit preparator/designer at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, and is now a freelance exhibit preparator and consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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