Spark Notes
Show Me The Money: 5 Strategies for Keeping Your Exhibit Project on Budget
Luci Creative
August 10, 2017
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Design and construction projects are notorious for taking longer than expected, and the unique undertaking of a museum exhibit design project is no exception. A number of factors routinely throw these projects off track. Unrealistic timeframes, short-staffed teams, long review periods—even holidays and vacations—and more, can eat away at valuable days and weeks.

In a report entitled Current Practice in Project Management: an Empirical Study, by the Centre for Complexity and Change (yes, that’s a real thing), the authors listed 24 data-supported factors that contribute to a project’s success. The second most important factor, right after “Clear Goals & Objectives,” was “Realistic Schedule.” The evidence speaks for itself, successful project schedules lead to successful projects. Whether your exhibit design project needs to be completed in eight weeks or eight months, here are five helpful tips for keeping the work on schedule:

  1. Have a Project Schedule. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many museum projects—especially small ones—have no detailed schedule. Every project requires planning, and the schedule is part of that plan. Without one, there’s no way of knowing if you’re on the right path. The project schedule doesn’t have to be a complex, multi-layered Gantt chart. A simple spreadsheet with a chronological list of tasks and milestones is often sufficient.
  2. Involve the Team. Project schedules should never be developed by a single person in a vacuum. The group leader—or project manager—should involve the exhibit development team and other stakeholders in creating the schedule. Each discipline (graphic design, content development, etc.) must provide input into how long certain tasks will take, and must discuss together how their efforts are best coordinated and overlapped.
  3. Complete Tasks Early. Parkinson’s Law is the adage that tasks expand to fill the time allotted for them. If a project schedule allows three weeks for the graphic design of a gallery, then chances are pretty good that it’ll be finished on the final day (around 5:00 PM). Don’t fall into this common and silly trap. If there’s work that can be wrapped up in less time than the schedule allows, do it! And then move on to the next important task.
  4. Be Flexible and Adaptable. A project schedule is not absolute. It’s a roadmap. And when your project hits detours and roadblocks—as they all, inevitably do—you need to find a new route to get the project back on track. This doesn’t mean that the project team can be laissez-faire about deadlines, but that everyone must be prepared to accommodate a changing course forward. Even the tightest project schedule is a living document and needs to be revisited and revised periodically.
  5. Check-in with the Team. Don’t just distribute the project schedule and expect everyone to follow along. Schedules are boring and not visually interesting. Assume that no one on your team will even look at it. Have regular team meetings focused on the schedule: on ongoing tasks, upcoming milestones, and potential red flags. Periodically touch base with team members one-on-one. Ask them, a few days before a deadline, if they’re in good shape to complete the task on time.

A project schedule is just an illustration: a piece of paper (or a file). Even with a well thought-out, detailed schedule and the tips noted above, there’s no guarantee that your exhibit design project will stay on target. But it can if you treat it right. A schedule needs to be managed, looked over, and babied; not just created then forgotten. Remember what Fred Brooks, of IBM fame, once said; “How does a project get to be a year late? One day at a time.”

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.

Communicate Honestly
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.

Originally published by MuseumNext.

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