Day and night at museums and galleries

Museums and galleries across the UK make for great visitor attractions, but they can also provide a unique and creative backdrop for meetings and events.

“Museums and galleries are now a respected and established part of the venue choice of most event organisers,” says President of the International Special Events Society, Philip Atkins.

“Usually the first question an organiser will ask is the scope in which their creativity will be able to work in, regardless of venue. Museums and galleries can provide this, be it a stylised experience based on the venue’s day time activity, or, more rarely, a blank canvas space the planner can fill,” he adds.

A museum or gallery setting for an event can help create an inspiring and exciting atmosphere that will go down well with clients and delegates alike. Helen Stallard from Ikon Gallery, Birmingham recognises the benefits of museums and galleries in terms of inspiring creativity among delegates.

“Ikon offers a space which can really enhance creativity. Getting out of the traditional boardroom can have a stimulating effect on delegates. At Ikon an organiser can break up sessions with time spent in the galleries absorbing cutting-edge art works,” she says.

The GM of Sodexo Prestige for Churchill War Rooms, Will Sales, says many organisers and training companies are requesting this space for their events “in order to gain inspiration from the great leader, with management and leadership training very fitting to the environment”, he says.

“Recently, parallels with the austere time of war have been made with our current recession hit economy. What better venue to plan a company’s economic recovery than the place Churchill declared ‘This is the room from which I will direct the war’,” he adds.

Museums and galleries are not limited in the type of events that they can hold and Director and Co-Founder of ConferencesGroup, Simon Thompson, points to the large spaces on offer as a reason for this. “The large space that is available in these venues along with their individuality are appealing benefits that cannot always be achieved in a hotel environment,” he says.

York Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York, has hosted events from murder mystery dinners, chocolate making sessions and ghost tours, as well as hosting a lunch for the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Beatrice in April this year.

The Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has held a reception with acrobats suspended three storeys above the crowd, a silent disco in the Imagine gallery and an enchanted forest in the Grand Gallery. Further south, The Manchester Art Gallery recently hosted a new clothing range launch. The team were tasked with displaying the clothes within the gallery so they looked like an art exhibit but still stood out as a clothing range.

“Both museums and galleries can provide organisers with a unique and inspiring environment to hold an event or conference,” says Thompson. “Being in such prestigious surroundings offers a bigger ‘pull factor’ when inviting delegates, and organisers are more likely to find that the venue alone can be an attraction for some people who otherwise might not attend.”

Business Development Executive for Sodexo Prestige, Dionne May agrees: “The desire to create the ‘wow’ factor by using unusual venues has helped boost business throughout Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums’ venues.”

A particular advantage for these type of venues is that they can provide both event space and entertainment all in one place.

Visitor Services Co-ordinator at York Mansion House, Fiona Young, considers museums and galleries to be venues that can add something extra to a corporate event. “Museums add an extra dimension and a quirky interest to what might otherwise be a rather bland corporate event? We can arrange talks and guided tours for visiting groups offering an insight into the Lord Mayor’s residence and over 200 years of civic history.”

Event Sales Manager at National Museums Liverpool (NML), Brian Churchill, agrees that museums and art galleries give a unique feel to the occasion. He says venues such as the neo-classical Walker Art Gallery and the Victorian dock warehouses of Merseyside Maritime Museum “ensure that every event is memorable for those who attend and keeps costs down by reducing the need for additional room decorations or activities for delegates.”

Holding an event at a museum or gallery may require a little more flexibility from organisers as the venues themselves are spaces that are open to the general public, and some are not open for conference and event bookings every day. The public opening hours mean pure day conference business is limited. “Some venues only sell space two days a week and offer nothing over the summer. Others are available throughout the year,” says Thompson.

One venue that is open for day meetings is The Heritage Motor Museum in Warwickshire where delegates can enjoy what the museum claims to be the largest collection of historic British cars in the world. The museum offers 24 different sized rooms and can host 600 in its Conference and Exhibition Suite.

Strawberry Marketing’s, Oriana Humphryes organised an event at Beaulieu, the home of the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, to welcome 250 owners and crews for the Solent J Class Regatta. The venue offers guests the chance to get an up close look at famous cars such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Harry Potter Flying car as well as a collection of Bond cars from the 007 movies. “Venues such as Beaulieu give guests something to talk about and the event will stay in their memories if they get to go somewhere they may not have been to before,” says Humphryes.

“Our guests were only in the Solent area for a few weeks, for work purposes not pleasure, so they would not have been able to experience Beaulieu if we had not booked the event there.”

At the National Railway Museum in York and Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester organisers and guests more often than not want to take a ride on the transport on offer.

Event Planning Manager at the National Railway Museum, Michelle Rennoldson, says: “The chance to drive the trains is requested regularly and can be arranged”, while at the MOSI taking rides on ‘The Planet’ steam train is a popular request.

Events at museums and galleries can also be made to be more bespoke at a client’s request. At The Museum of London talks and tours can be personalised to individual clients by linking it with the theme of the event or relating it to a specific object or industry. “Our mission is to increase awareness, appreciation and understanding of the city’s culture heritage, its people and its stories,” says Group Sales Manager, Robert Wetherell.

The Wellcome Collection, London, noticed that its recent ‘Dirt’ exhibition resulted in an increase in bookings from companies providing cleaning products with all of them including a tour as part of their booking.

Business Development Manager at MOSI, Lucy Cort adds: “For evening events, many clients request keeping various galleries open, and these are normally the galleries that house whatever is linked to the company. For example, we held an event in 6 March 2012 for National Grid and we had to work with MOSI to provide staff including a senior energy curator to conduct tours for the attendees through the gas and electricity galleries, where the National Grid sponsored exhibits, such as pieces of gas pipe.”

To recreate the inspirational atmosphere of the main gallery, the Wellcome Collection carries the themes from the exhibitions into the conference rooms. “The appeal of using museums and galleries is that we carry through the themes from the exhibitions into the conference rooms, with related pieces by the same artists. The rooms are then carrying through the personality of the building which can help shape the theme of the event, and gives the delegates a talking point over coffee,” says Conference Centre Manager of the Wellcome Collection, Rachel Cordier.

In addition to the unique setting and entertainment on site, museums and galleries offer organisers the scope to make their events a little more unusual if they wish.

Unusual requests at NML have included Marilyn Monroe and a vintage fire engine. “Everyone wants their event to be a success and we work with our clients to ensure theirs stands out,” notes Churchill. “We’ve had a Marilyn Monroe look-alike greeting guests, and a vintage fire engine parked at the front of one of our venues, which certainly drew a crowd.”

The Museum of London’s most unusual request was for a baby elephant and a tiger. Wetherell says: “For one event, the organiser wanted to bring in a baby elephant and tiger for a launch party celebrating the 18th century ‘Age of Enlightenment’. But it didn’t happen.”

If events are held at a museum or gallery during public opening hours requests to close the venue are unlikely to be granted. “Requests we can’t agree to are usually around wanting to close galleries during public hours,” says Cordier. “The cafes and gallery spaces are free to access with fixed opening hours to the public, and this, unfortunately is non-negotiable.”

One final issue that needs to be considered before choosing such a venue for an event, according to Thompson, is that of cost. “Most museums and galleries outsource their catering to suppliers and sometimes the conference agent has to negotiate with these companies separately. Rates are not always as negotiable or flexible as they are at the more traditional hotel and conference venues.”

With museums and galleries becoming more popular as event spaces, the Museum of London completed a £21.5m refurbishment of its event spaces 18 months ago which included redesigning its galleries with hospitality in mind. A 360-degree digital ellipse with plasma screens was also installed. It can be programmed with rolling text and images.

The National Museum of Scotland reopened in July 2011 after a three-year, £47.4m redevelopment and now boasts 16 new galleries as well as a 200-seater auditorium and Learning Centre.
Other new developments include The Tanks at Tate Modern and the Museum of Liverpool which opened in July 2011.

The Tate Modern recently unveiled its new space, The Tanks, available from November 2012 to January 2013 for 1,000 guests. Previously oil chambers that fuelled Bankside power station, the space is unique and flexible.

NML’s newest museum opened in July 2011 and sits on the city’s iconic waterfront.  Clients have often used the city’s museums to hold evening receptions, while holding plenary sessions at ACC Liverpool. Indeed, the largest event held at the museum was a gala reception for 1,100 people following a conference at ACC Liverpool.

If you’re looking for a venue with a unique backdrop, flexible spaces and entertainment on site why not think about spending a night (or day) at a museum or gallery.   

This was first published in the September 2012 edition of CN. Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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