Lessons from Ecsite: Towards a Collaborative Approach in Touring Exhibitions

This year's Ecsite conference was packed with fascinating sessions spanning three very busy days (15-17th of June). Over 1,000 international science communicators from both public institutions and private companies convened in the beautiful city of Porto. The Conference, titled "Life Everywhere", focused on the "extraordinary diversity of forms that have evolved on our planet" and intended to be "a celebration of our existence", according to the hosts.  Natural sciences and human cultural topics aside, it pressed the scientific community to explore, identify and collaborate on solving the global issues of our times through exhibitions.

The attendees shared strategies and resources to optimise operations, research, exhibitions development, and audience engagement. It was a great opportunity for us to touch base with the science travelling exhibitions community and learn about its newest developments, shows, and ideas.

The session which captivated me most was the conversation between Alex Susanna, the Managing Director of Expona, Maren Krumdieck, Senior Exhibition Partnership Manager from The Natural History Museum in London and Eve Arachtingi, Learning Officer for Universcience, titled "Touring Spectacular & Ambitious Exhibitions: How?".

The session focused on reconciling two categories of exhibition design which at first glance seem to mutually exclude each other. It started with the following question: if a touring exhibition traditionally has to comply with various requirements - reasonable weight and size, quick setup and dismantling process, stackable design for easy transportation etc. - this automatically restrict its "wow!" factor for prospective audiences, Then how can it also be a spectacular exhibition, which takes full advantage of the potentialities of different local venues? In other words, how do you make a touring exhibition which is both impressive and fresh to audiences in every station of its tour?

In recent years, both Expona and the Natural History Museum in London concluded that the turn-key model of touring cannot furnish an answer to this question. Designing a spectacular touring exhibition must imply abandoning the turn-key model in favour of a collaborative approach.

The first characteristic of this approach is a flexible attitude on behalf of the producer. As each hosting venue has its unique identity and visitor profile, starting a collaboration with a flexible mindset is paramount. Secondly, it presupposes the dialogue and involvement of every hosting venue from the very beginning. The collaboration between producer and host implies a splitting of competences in the process. This could mean the sharing of resources, by having the producer supply core parts for the exhibition while  the hosting venue produces flexible parts to complete it, according to Alex Susanna. The local host could thus deliver their own illumination system and showcases, advertising graphics and key visual elements, produce hands-on and educational material, the translation of texts and so on rather than relying on these from the original producer. This is hugely effective in saving costs for producer and lowers the rental fee for hosting venue.

Another model could mean a tighter joint effort in production through the sharing of knowledge and staff expertise; staff from the hosting venue would thus be closely involved in the very development of the show, by providing curatorial expertise, technical support, and handling all press and marketing aspects of the show.

From a technical point of view, the result of this approach is usually an exhibition that is much more closely tailored to the hosting venue, and is conceptually much more aligned to the local host's programme and mission statement. In short - a pretty impressive exhibition also coming to a city near you! The Ecsite session was significant in this sense, because it supplied a more attractive recipe for venues that think of touring exhibitions as purely turn-key - perhaps less attractive solutions for their programming needs. The recipe was derived from the common experiences of two different players in the touring world: a reputable touring exhibitions private company and a large non-profit organisation.

We would like to add to this proposition the observation that any successful commercial dialogue in the industry has to be built on transparency and clarity on the business models organisations are ready to employ to collaborate with each other. As the industry moves forward and the dialogues between parts begin with less strictures, stating precisely what is offered by each partner becomes very important from the outset.

On this matter, our CEO, Bernadine Bröcker Wieder, recently wrote that “to attract funding from emerging markets or to partner with new venues, the industry as a whole needs to provide more clarity on the budgets for these exhibitions and the logistical requirements of putting them on. Particularly, venues that are new to hosting shows can benefit from accessing this information, but even established venues are finding more information about travelling exhibitions helpful in establishing new partnerships. When it comes to public/private partnerships, more clarity on objectives beyond solely the financial, better capacity to find mutual interests, and more effective methods of measuring an exhibition’s impact can increase the instances and the quality of collaborations. “

On Vastari Exhibitions you will encounter clear information on the financial demands of producers, the logistical details of the exhibition, the exhibits and supporting material offered and much more, in a transparent and standardised manner. Our members found it incredibly useful in slimming down communication before an agreement to its essentials. This led to faster and more competent decision-making in renting out shows. We built Vastari Exhibitions with collaboration, transparency and clarity  in mind, and are very happy to see that reputable actors in the field are spearheading this model of touring to the benefit of the museum industry as a whole.