National Museums Liverpool

Fiona Philpott

Director of Exhibitions

National Museums Liverpool

Exhibitions, 127 Dale Street Liverpool, L2 2JH United Kingdom

Eye for Colour

Liverpool is known worldwide as the birthplace of the Beatles, and home to two international football clubs but it also has one of the finest groups of museums in any regional city in the world. National Museums Liverpool (NML) has eight venues and is the only national museum service in England based entirely outside London. It is funded by central government and is the largest cultural organisation in the North West of England, employing more than 620 staff. 

NML's venues are: World Museum Liverpool, the Walker Art Gallery, Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum, the Revenue Customs National Museum, the National Conservation Centre, Lady Lever Art Gallery and Sudley House. In 2010 we will be opening a ninth venue, the Museum of Liverpool which will be situated on the City's historic waterfront. Currently, the venues attract more than 2 million visits each year, having seen a three fold increase in visits over the last 6 years. National Museums Liverpool has an excellent track-record for permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions produced to the highest international standards and in 2003 created a new exhibitions department to develop greater expertise and improved management of display projects across both its art galleries and museums. Each year the team is responsible for approx. 25 projects across the organisation.

World Museum Liverpool is one of NML's major exhibition venues. It houses internationally important collections including archaeology, ethnology and natural history and it is here that we staged Eye for Colour in 2006. Our objective in developing this exhibition was to provide marketable change at World Museum and to produce a strong family exhibition targeted at children between the ages of 7 and 12 years, and to produce an attractive, robust exhibition for the touring market. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we had the opportunity to deliver the exhibition as part of a wider partnership with other professionals within the heritage sector.

Like many of the best ideas it began over a few glasses of wine. A small group of ecsite-uk members, the national network of science centres and museums, met over dinner in October 2003 to discuss how we might work together to create affordable, high quality touring exhibitions. So was born a unique partnership, the eTEC travelling exhibitions consortium consisting of Ecsite-uk, National Museums Liverpool, At-Bristol, W5, Magna and Science Projects. Each member held a specific role within the consortium. Our plan was to produce three high quality exhibitions designed to maintain and build visitor numbers, which would be free to each host venue and offered commercially afterwards.

The 3 exhibition proposals we put together were Eye for Colour led by NML, Animated Adventures led by W5 and Love Sport led by At-Bristol. With record speed we worked together to secure public funding from the UK's Millennium Commission, matched by in-kind support. A grant of approx. pound;1.9 million was awarded to the consortium with an allocation of pound;528,684 to NML for Eye for Colour. We added pound;55,000 from our own funds to cover local costs such as educational events, press and marketing. We calculated our in-kind contribution as pound;321,000 which was largely based on staff time.

By working together as a consortium we felt that we would be able to share our collective knowledge and experiences, particularly in the production of touring exhibitions and through a wider commercial tour we would generate secondary income which we hoped to channel back into future projects. At NML we believed that we could learn a lot about excellence in science communication and in interpretation methods from our science centre partners. We also recognised that our own expertise in display delivery and production would be of value to the consortium.

For the team at NML the challenge was to create a modular, flexible and robust exhibition that would tour for up to five years. We also wanted to create an exhibition written and developed for a family audience and aimed at children. We hoped to attract, stimulate and inspire existing and new audiences and we sought to design a product that would be suitable for museums, art galleries or science centres.

Eye for Colour, and the exhibitions produced by our partner venues contributed to record visitor figures at World Museum Liverpool during 2006 and 2007 when overall venue figures rose by more than 200,000. Eye for Colour itself attracted more than 317,000 visits over 6 months at World Museum, which represented 95% of all visits to the venue. This is a far higher percentage than we have received for any exhibition before or since, and people still ask about the exhibition. With its tour, the figure has now risen to more than 600,000 visits. During the run of the exhibition we carried out evaluation on marketing awareness, the learning offer and the exhibits themselves. The feedback from visitors was very positive, ls"This exhibition is fantastic. My daughter has been four times. It's the interaction rather than just looking, being able to take part in the quizzes, paint fish, do lots of things.' Family visitors clearly appreciated the exhibition. ls"It's really good. There is a lot for the children to dohellip; and for adults too - gets you thinking, and I feel I've learned a lot'.

In terms of innovation and creativity, the interdisciplinary team approach we adopted at NML brought a new dimension to this project and between them staff from across the organisation developed some really imaginative approaches and ideas. The exhibition draws together arts, science, natural history and humanities, creating an unforgettable experience. It is visually stunning with an oversize palette and paint brush, prisms splitting light into its component parts and a film showing the wonders of colour in nature. Twenty-four inter-actives were created, including; Flashy Fish, where children can colour in a fish and watch it swim away; a participative Culture Quiz; Design a Sign; and the Art Machine which allows visitors to create a virtual masterpiece and email it home.

Most of the temporary exhibitions we had produced at NML up to this point were object rich with limited interactivity. This was the first time that we had made the hands-on experience central to an exhibition and it proved to be a very successful method of engaging with younger audiences. We adopted a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to the exhibition delivery with designers central to the development of the content from the outset. Our graphic approach and the use of illustrations helped to create a playful environment. It was designed in a modular fashion so that the sections could be viewed in any order and it could fit into different spaces within an overall footprint of approx. 400 sqm. We used a range of interpretive approaches including audio-visual, computer and physical interactives, readily engaging text, reproduction paintings and photomicrographs. The exhibition was enhanced by a formal and informal learning programme which could be used at any venue.

We created a project manager post for the exhibition but otherwise relied on our internal team of exhibition officers, designers and technicians. Through the consortium our staff had the opportunity to work with colleagues across the sector and to draw on the expertise of professionals in science communication and production. While the exhibition was on show we employed a team of demonstrators to talk to visitors and to lead workshops for the public and school parties.

Even though content development and design for this exhibition proved to be one of the most creative and productive processes we have experienced to date, there were challenges. We had to work to incredibly tight deadlines, designing and developing the exhibition over a period of 15 months. At the outset we had imagined that there would be time for group discussions at critical design stages but each partner became largely responsible for the content and design of their own exhibition. The accounting and cost reporting regime which is a very significant part of public funded projects added another level of complexity

If we were to repeat this experience we would try and allow more time for brainstorming and planning at the outset and for input from the partners at later stages in the design development process. Our thinking was also very much driven by the practicalities of developing a touring exhibition and because of this we were reluctant to include material from our historic collections, In future, we would try and overcome these obstacles so that there is greater access to our collections. We adopted a modular approach to the design which worked well but in so doing lost an element of theatre and spectacle which in the future we would like to preserve. Whilst the exhibition team worked well to a tight timescale, the complexity and scale of the project coupled with everything else the department was responsible for placed the staff under considerable pressure. Next time, it would be wise for us appoint a dedicated designer to increase the capacity of the in-house design team.

The exhibition has far exceeded our expectations in terms of its attractiveness and appeal not only amongst the consortium venues but across the sector generally. The consortium is an example of professional excellence in operation. It succeeded in delivering its objectives and has raised the bar for all the participating venues in the creation of highly popular, innovative touring exhibitions, allowing each venue to do more in partnership than it could have achieved on its own. It has proved to be a cost effective way of producing excellent visitor attractions. For NML, our experience has led to the creation of a new international consortium with the Museon in the Hague, Technopolis in Mechlen and Le Vaisseau in Strasbourg. This time we are producing just one exhibition. It is an interactive and immersive exhibition about the Secret Life of Plants. So watch this space.


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