Today’s guest blogger is Rick Riccio. Rick is the owner of Riccio Exhibit Services and is now in his 18th year of teaching History Museum Exhibits to graduate students in the Historical Administration (HA) Program at Eastern Illinois University. He has worked on museum exhibitions in one manner or another since 1974. Each of the exhibitions with which he has been involved has had its unique challenges and problems to solve. Rick has guest blogged for us before. You can read his previous posts regarding the process he guides his students through so they understand what is involved when creating exhibits here and here.
After just reading “No Place like Home” by Dan Erickson in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of Museum, I feel compelled to respond. Having been on exhibit staffs of museums myself, I agree with him that museums should not eliminate exhibit staff positions. But his reasons pit for-profit companies against in-house staff, which I think misrepresents both. His main argument for producing exhibits in-house instead of outsourcing is the issue of “quality.” In-house staff, he argues, can produce better quality exhibits than commercial firms for two reasons; one, exhibit companies need to make a profit and two, museums (and their staff) have better access to specimens and information. Erickson has worked for both commercial firms and a university museum. When tasked with making a small prehistoric shark model with the commercial firm, he was given basic book illustrations and two weeks to complete the project. Asked to produce a similar model as the university museum employee, he accessed fossil references at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH), consulted with the vertebrate fossil curator there, and invested a couple hundred hours on the project. The problem with this comparison is that same information at the CMNH is available to anyone with a serious research project. You don’t have to be a member of a university museum staff. Furthermore, if a design company were only interested in the profit margin, they wouldn’t stay in business for long. There are good reasons for choosing to produce exhibits or some exhibit components in-house, but the main reasons lie with the particular skill sets of your staff, and any exhibit manager should know what her staff is capable of accomplishing in-house and what tasks need to be out-sourced. Even commercial firms are more qualified for certain exhibit services than others. If a shark model is needed, go to those firms skilled in that kind of exhibit fabrication. There may be exhibit firms out there that don’t work closely with museum staff, but that is not typical of the industry. Most museum staff would feel insulted at the least, if they were not closely involved in the exhibit development process.
Museum staff should, as Erickson points out, share their expertise with other institutions, but this arena of cooperative engagement is not limited to museum staff. Just look at posts on listservs like the one NAME hosts, and you will see that solutions to problems come from exhibitors in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds. Exhibit firms want to develop long-term relationships with their clients. My firm created epoxy resin Indian house models for a state historical society so they could distribute them to their historic sites. We then gave the molds to the museum and instructed their exhibit staff how to make additional casts if they desired.
I agree with the author that museum exhibit staff are underutilized at many museums, and he offers creative ways that other departments can tap their varied skills. But the in-house vs. outsource issue is not an either/or proposition. They are two sides of the same coin, and museums are better served when the option for either choice is kept open.