Night at the museum

There was a time when organising an event in a museum could be quite a challenge with various strict conditions.

While the backdrop is usually the drawcard, museums have not always been geared up to host events. Reasons have included limited time slots, lack of trained event staff and difficulties over insuring items and freeing up space.

Expectations are now high. It is no longer unusual to sip your wine next to a statue or dine amidst WW2 or natural history exhibits and get all the AV whistles and bells installed in double quick time.

Samantha Burton is head of events at Merlin Events London and offers some tips for organisers to make the most of a museum’s event space.

Firstly, she advises organisers make good use of the professional team at the venue to tap into knowledge and creativity across many aspects of an event, from planning, set-up and design, through to social media.

“Event organisers are looking for ways to maximise venue space and engage their guests in a way that shows ingenuity and forward thinking,” she says.

“Clients are personalising their events far more and for them to be memorable they need an environment that reflects the style of a brand.”

Merlin’s attraction, she believes, is the variety of spaces (it is a group that includes Legoland, Warwick Castle, Thorpe Park and Blackpool Tower, among others). “If one Merlin attraction isn’t quite suitable for an enquiry, we’re able to offer alternative venues within the portfolio,” she says.

An after-hours tour can elevate the guest experience and gives visitors the chance to see a museum in a different light, Burton points out.

At Madame Tussauds, there is also a ready-made A-list to complement your delegates, even if they are made of wax.

“Not only are these exhibits a talking point, they can make an event set-up feel intimate,” Burton adds.

The Merlin team offer Virtual Reality walk-throughs of their event spaces and set-ups to showcase how to best maximise space within the venue. Configuration is not always obvious when a space is crammed full of exhibits 9-5.

Museums housing expansive auditoriums and galleries can enable events to spread throughout a venue; this is particularly well suited to networking and dinner dance events, where different aspects of an event can be held in their own private space.

“Museums are also easily accessible and built to flow from one exhibition to another, which lends itself well to experiential events where guests walk-through from one room to another as part of a story-telling experience,” Burton points out.

Richard Kadri-Langford, head of marketing at Lime Venue Portfolio, says that the unusual venue market continues to add incremental value to events. “Organisers are now having events because they have the right venues to have them in and are being spurred on creatively to create more expansive experiences. This is a big part of the value that unique venues bring to the industry and we’re seeing more and more brands and businesses align themselves with the likes of the Imperial War Museum (North), Churchill War Rooms, and the Museum of Science & Industry.”

At the top end museums tend to turn to the specialist event caterers like Lime to provide the experience for servicing events. This usually means event professionals are on hand to support the buyer through their journey, notes Kadri-Langford. “Thus, the perceived risk of using an unusual venue, which was historically quite high, has been eroded,” he adds.

Ben Lheureux is group operations manager at The Science Museum Group, and says clients are looking for activities that add value and can create a more bespoke experience for delegates.

At the Science Museum, he says, entertainment options can include motion-theatre rides and gallery-related character actors mingling with guests.

At the National Railway Museum in York added extras that can be included as a part of a conference programme include refreshments served in the atmospheric Station Hall, which houses Royal trains, as well as turntable demonstrations of the locomotives.

“We’ve definitely seen an upwards surge in the scale of events compared to previous years,” says Lheureux. “Clients have been booking larger events in the museum, in terms of both guest numbers and booking more than one event space when they hold an event with us – such as booking one of the gallery spaces for a dinner or reception following an all-day conference.”

Top tips for using a museum

Where possible, choose a museum or one of the spaces that resonates with your company, product or service – for an aviation company, for example, the Flight gallery in the Science Museum could be an option
Consider choosing a ‘one-off package’ being offered by the museum. These tend to celebrate certain milestones (return of the Flying Scotsman) or exhibitions at the museums
Make use of the guided tours and added extras available – if you are hosting your event at a public attraction after hours, make sure you give your guests time to explore and make the most of the experience
Scrutinise the venue’s supplier list.

Communications manager at Future publishing, Andrew Parsonage, has used the Roman Baths in Bath now for two years running as the venue for the company’s Christmas party.

Although the original reason, he admits, “was probably a legacy thing”, its convenience and size were key factors, too.

Parsonage says a unique setting provides a very different experience compared to a large pub or hotel function space.

“It is a great venue and it’s brilliant having reception drinks alongside the Baths because it made for such a special atmosphere.”

Cultural dimension

Adding a cultural dimension to your conference or event can reap rewards in terms of attracting delegates and adding value.

The Mary Rose Museum in the heart of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard made headline news when it re-opened to the public on 20 July – and with it came the unveiling of the Admiral’s Gallery, a corporate venue able to host 100 guests. It offers views of the conserved hull of Henry VIII’s flagship.

Guests can also move on to the venue’s Bridge Balcony where they can enjoy a drink and views across the harbour.

Up in NewcastleGateshead, there is the Discovery Museum, the Hancock Museum and, not far from the city, Beamish Museum, where delegates can get a taste of life in North East England in 1820¹s, 1900s and 1940s.

A more modern backdrop is the Life Science Centre and the art galleries at the BALTIC.

Hanaa Skalli is an acting events manager at Art Fund and says: “As a charity for the arts we choose to hold events at museums and galleries to strengthen our message and show our supporters the fantastic variety of cultural institutions that are available. These venues offer spectacular architectural spaces, beautiful collections and collaborative elements such as talks from curatorial experts and tours.

“The only consideration was accessing the museum after it closed to the public, which meant we had to be checked in by the security team.”

She said objectives for the Art Fund’s recent Museum of the year awards at NHM were more than met: “We were delighted with the press attention it received. Using such a well-known venue meant that we were able to raise our profile just through association”.

Lucy Meehan, senior events manager at the Natural History Museum, says there is usually only a small window of time for setting an event after the museum has closed to the public. “The suppliers are all well practised in the magic of transforming the venue from museum to a beautiful event venue. One of the key aspects of this is hosting the pre-drinks reception in some of our smaller spaces, while the main events space is being dressed. We often use black drapes to hide the main events space and conduct the big reveal once it is ready, which not only buys a little extra time, but also brings an element of intrigue and excitement to the evening.”

Meehan believes that, compared with venues of a similar status, museums offer competitive prices given the variety of capacities available.

“For us, our ROI is demonstrated via the wonderful amount of repeat clients that we retain,” she adds.


Martin Fullard


Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

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