The Unsung Business of Traveling Museum Exhibitions

Glen Hendrix
Sep 3, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash — cropped

Big museums, in general, have a lot of money. They use it to acquire more stuff, not to keep down the price of admissions, which has soared over the past few years so that many major museums charge between $15 and $30 for adult admissions. And yet, people still come. Why? Much of it has to do with the traveling exhibitions that camp out at museums for three months or more and entice you with something different. After you’ve seen the Tyrannosaurus Rex or whale skeleton for the fourth or fifth time, you and (more importantly) the kiddos are ready for something new.

It just so happens there is a whole industry that hardly anyone thinks, writes, or talks about that provides traveling exhibitions to museums. It runs the gamut from a nicely done set of placards with art and text dealing with a number of subjects that rent for modest sums up to $3000 for three months to an extravaganza taking up 8,000 square feet or more and costing upwards of $400,000. It can be an individual with a focus on one thing, like Christopher Marley’s Biophilia, or Da Vinci: the Exhibition, one of twenty-some-odd large exhibits dealing with space, dinosaurs, art, and the human body from Imagine Exhibitions. At the stratospheric range of traveling exhibitions is Harry Potter: the Exhibition using 12 semi truck trailers to deliver 15,000 square feet of show for an estimated two million dollars.

The inspiration for this article was, in fact, Christopher Marley’s Biophilia which I saw in Houston. Christoper collects his specimens “…in an environmentally sensitive manner from a world wide network of people and institutions that share his passion for nature.” Basically, they are deceased birds, bugs, and snakes. What he does with those specimens will blow your mind. His sense of design to accentuate the qualities of his subject is superb. The beauty he portrays of things we might ordinarily think squeamishly of is an unexpected and very welcome gift to the soul. His show got me to thinking about how one gets their work into a museum. He doesn’t work for the Houston Museum of Natural Science so how did his exhibition get there.

It sounds trite, but first you have to have a museum quality product and display. Also, there are publications and organizations you can join and advertise in that are devoted to nothing but supporting the traveling museum exhibit and exhibition industry. Yes, many exhibitions are of some thing or collection of things; but many more are gems of the mind — beautiful coherent thoughts and knowledge brought to existence for other people to examine.

This is an industry that has a bright future. Museum revenues are down despite the rise in ticket prices, and traveling exhibitions are one way museums can reverse that trend as far as ticket sales go. About half of European museums and 80 percent of North American museums use traveling exhibitions developed by others.

This is one of those industries limited only by imagination. In general, however, it is not a solo endeavor. I don’t want to denigrate genius solo polymaths; but teachers, designers, artists, technicians, and code writers are also needed to weave their skills together for an effective communication interface that also happens to be a traveling exhibition.

There is competition. Many major museums have used their most valuable assets as the basis for traveling exhibitions. King Tut, Terracotta Warriors, and the like are things you can’t compete with. There are, however, at least four big exhibition companies with their own version of Leonardo da Vinci’s invention sketchbook come to life, and they are all doing well. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of different versions based on Da Vinci and his drawings.

Here are a few examples of what’s out there:

Grande Exhibitions has developed a system “that combines multichannel motion graphics, cinema quality surround sound and up to forty high-definition projectors to provide one of the most exciting multiscreen environments in the world.” Grande has produced several amazing traveling exhibitions including Van Gogh Alive, Planet Shark: Predator or Prey, 101 Inventions That Changed the World, The French Impressionists — Monet to Cezanne, and Alice — A Wonderland Adventure.

Fulldome.pro provides prefabricated domes 1.5 to 35 meters in diameter with projectors and a library of 90 shows to go with them.

Flexhibit makes modules that demonstrate various STEM oriented subjects.

A couple of great things about this niche industry is that the surface has only been scratched for both subject matter and the use of modern digital tools to display and interact with databases on science, art, health, and history. It would be nice to have artifacts to base a show on — I just saw the Art of the Gunsmith Exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science — but not everyone has a collection of fifty or so rifles and pistols in nearly perfect condition from the three centuries spanning Columbus to Napoleon. You don’t have to. You can create your own like Luke Jerram’s Moon, a 23 foot diameter replica of the Moon lit from inside. If you have a niche knowledge to teach, a secret curiosity itch to scratch, a different take on things, an artistic view, inquisitive intelligence, or a dogged determination to find out about things, you have what it takes to make a splash in traveling museum exhibitions.

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Coral inlaid pistol. Photo by Glen Hendrix.

Even if you don’t know people with the right skills, some of these exhibition companies are willing partners to help you get started. EDG, with dozens of large exhibitions already developed, will listen to your ideas. ExhibitsUSA specializes in photo exhibitions and wants to hear your take on the next great one. You can even find recommendations for producing small, interactive exhibitions for children online.

That is really where the heart of the matter lies. There is so much room out there for exhibitions that teach our kids, as well as most adults, what they need to know to navigate this strange new world we live in. They need to know about the nitty gritty stuff like climate change and racism as well as the cool stuff like dinosaurs and butterflies. We don’t know what will trigger an idea in the brains of our next Einsteins or Newtons so we have to strive to give them the basic thinking tools and knowledge they need as well as something extra. It is up to us to teach them, and what better way than an inspiring personal experience at the museum.

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