Museum exhibits can be pricey. Whether it’s a permanent installation or a travelling exhibition, myriad influences can affect the cost. Image acquisition, AV hardware, shipping, materials, and more, can quickly throw a conservative project budget way off track, unless these aspects are carefully considered during the design process.
Current estimates for the cost of museum exhibits are around $75 to more than $800 per square foot. This ridiculously wide range is due to a number of factors that differ from project to project, but which clearly make exhibit budget planning difficult, uncertain, and frightening. Whether your institution is flush with cash or on a shoestring budget, here are five proven methods for keeping your exhibition project costs in check:
Have a Contingency
A contingency is money set aside, to be used for increases in market costs or unforeseen items and services. For an exhibit project, it’s wise to have both a design contingency and a fabrication contingency. The design contingency can help fund great ideas that are born during the creative process, which might be financially more ambitious than the original program. A fabrication contingency will cover unpredictable costs related to things like travel, shipping and materials.
Reduce the Scope of Work
As the saying goes, “You can have anything, but you can’t have everything.” One of the fastest ways to get your exhibit costs in-line with your budget is to trim some of the fat. This could include implementing strategies such as reducing the project’s square footage or decreasing the number of trips or meetings.
Involve Fabricators Early
Whether you’ve hired a design-build firm or a sole exhibit design specialist, it helps to bring in a fabricator during the creative process. An exhibit fabricator can assess the physical design – from as early as the concept phase – to provide accurate cost estimates, material and finish suggestions, and coordinate ongoing museum architecture or general contracting work.
This is a two-way street. Exhibit designers owe it to their museum clients to be frank if the project expectations and brainstorming ideas outweigh the project budget. Likewise, if during the creative process a designer is recommending solutions or technologies beyond your comfortable reach. If this happens then you need to speakup, put on the brakes, and reevaluate what your budget can afford.
Avoid the Bandwagon
It’s easy to get caught up in high-tech trends, and to assume that your visitors expect theatrical immersion, multi user interactive tables, mobile apps, and AR or VR experiences. Although these things can enhance a museum exhibition and provide unique content delivery, they may not be realistic within a conservative project budget. Consider these costs at the beginning of the project and involve a media developer in the conversation so that s/he can share ideas and provide alternatives that fit within your budget.
It’s likely that following just one of these five strategies will help to keep your exhibit project on budget, but you may need to meld a few of them. Working with your partners, the project budget should be discussed and re-assessed from day one – from the kickoff meeting through to the project’s grand opening. Everyone must be aware of the budget, so that the entire team can be responsible for keeping it in check.
About the author – David Whitemyer
David Whitemyer is the Director of Business Development at Luci Creative, a Chicago-based exhibit design firm, and an instructor in Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies program.