Guide | Exhibitions on a budget - Museums Association

Guide | Exhibitions on a budget

Museums share their tips on how to reduce the cost
St Albans Museum and Gallery runs up to six temporary exhibitions a year and has clear guidelines on design principles

As the museum and heritage sectors recover from the pandemic and funding remains under significant pressure, they are contending with rising expectations from audiences. 

“Visitors are no longer satisfied with a collection of old objects hidden in glass cases,” says Helen Shepherd, who handles communications for the National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) in Sheffield. “They expect to be entertained, enthused and engaged with history and feel that they have spent their time – and their money – well.”

Her colleague Matthrew Wakefield, chief executive of NESM, estimates the average cost of a new exhibition to be between £300 and £500 per square foot – not including staff costs or building works, signage, additional cabinets or interactive tech.  

So how can cultural and heritage institutions overcome the challenge of creating fantastic visitor experiences without breaking the bank?

1. Always aim high

“We always start by thinking about everything we would like to do, and then we work out what is possible,” says Sarah Keeling, the curator at St Albans Museum and Gallery, which has a programme of up to six temporary exhibitions a year. “It’s an opportunity to make it work and be creative with what we have.”


2. Create a comprehensive checklist 

Start at the beginning and run through every aspect of the exhibition, advises Keeling.

  • What is the purpose of the exhibition and what will people go away with? 
  • What are your big ideas and ambitions?
  • What is your design concept?
  • What objects will be on display?
  • What text will be needed?
  • What equipment do you have and what do you need?

Once the list is complete, set deadlines for each part of the project and assign the tasks to the right people and teams, and share it with partners.

3. Be strict with your design principles

To help and support the many community groups that work with St Albans Museum to create exhibitions, Keeling has created a set of clear guidelines covering all the museum’s design principles, including font size, length of interpretation and using card (not paper) for signage. These are shared with all relevant stakeholders at the beginning of the process.


“Be consistent about enforcing those guidelines,” Keeling says. “A small budget doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the detail. It shouldn’t be easy to tell if it’s an exhibition by the community or the museum.”

4. Max out your in-house skills and resources

For Sara Adderson, deputy curator at Ely Museum, the most efficient way to cut costs is to do as much in-house as possible. “Look at the skills in your team,” she says. “Does someone have a good eye for colour, or are they great at DIY, even if that isn’t part of their day-to-day job? 

St Alban’s Keeling says regular meetings about the resources and skills needed means she never stops learning new things about what her team can offer. For its forthcoming Bollito Bombshells exhibition, charting the history of a local hosiery mill, a team member is lending their personal collection of mending threads and needles, and another is using their knitting skills to create an exhibit. 

5. Invest in flexible equipment and make small changes

“Commit to a few flexible items, such as cases or frames, that can be reused for all exhibitions,” says Adderson.


St Albans has invested in display blocks and display top cases that can be moved and technology, such as screens and headphones, that can be used in multiple different ways. “We want a 1950s television set for a forthcoming exhibition, but we will create it with the tech we already have rather than sourcing a TV,” says Keeling. “We make it work with the tech we have.”

The NESM works with the local universities and students creating new apps, resources and software, which benefits the museums, supports the local community and invests in new talent and skills.

6. Recycle, reuse and reduce

Recycling and reusing materials from previous shows is a common way to keep costs down and improve the sustainability of exhibitions.

For Wakefield Museum’s multisensory and immersive A World of Good exhibition, looking at the writings of pioneering environmentalist Charles Waterton, all the plinths used were repurposed from a previous show and from sections of a recreated rhubarb shed from its Rhubarb Festival the year before.

Tullie in Carlisle used 100m of CLS timber stored from various events to create a new framework for its Once Upon A Planet exhibition, which looks at climate change and biodiverse habitats in the county.

Anna Smalley, head of collections and engagement at Tullie House, recommends using screws rather than nails when building new woodwork, which makes disassembly easier and reduces the risk of damage.

At the NESM, surplus handcuffs have been used as exhibition barriers, duplicate helmets as light fitting and old lockers have become display cases. “Through our networks, we also rescue surplus items that were destined to be thrown away,” Wakefield says. “Recycling these highly expensive fittings allows the museum to spend money elsewhere.”

7. Some costs are just unavoidable

Printing is a cost that museums struggle to avoid. Wakefield Museum curator John Whittaker suggests forming relationships with local graphics companies or printing online if someone in the team has mastered the basics of simple design software.

Smalley from Tullie adds that even where it has used projections to avoid print costs, electricity becomes another consideration. And for Keeling at St Albans, freelancers and technicians who help to bring their ideas to life are cheaper than buying bespoke items but remain another cost that is difficult to avoid.  

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.