Looking for a quirky venue for your event? Then look no further than the UK’s fantastic array of museums, galleries and other public attractions.

These venues offer unique backdrops, with pre-installed exhibits and artworks, and heaps of history and heritage to fascinate your attendees. They’re a great way to fast-track your event decor and theme – however, working with a public attraction is different to using a purpose-built event venue.

Helen Beresford-Boyse, National Railway Museum

We asked Helen Beresford-Boyse from the National Railway Museum in York to explain the challenges that come with setting up an event in a public building, and how best to tackle them.

According to Helen, one of the first challenges can be visualising what your event will look like, particularly if you visit the space when it is filled with people.

She says: “Ask the venue for video footage and pictures of the space for examples of how it has been used for private events – this will help you to understand how you can bring your event to life.”

You will also be able to see how exhibits and features of the building are incorporated into the event design.

“Museum or galleries used for exhibitions can sometimes be trickier for theming and decorating than blank canvas spaces, but the artefacts and collections available in a unique public space are arguably much more interesting to work with,” she says

National Railway Museum has a collection that includes over one million objects, spanning 300 years of train travel. Organisers often choose the museum because they want a railway theme or because it has synergy with their event.

“We have had 1920s themed events which fit perfectly with the vintage décor,” explains Helen. “And we often cater for private events such as career anniversaries or birthdays for someone within the rail or engineering industries.”

She adds: “Think outside the box and try to look at your exhibits in a creative way. We use our exhibits as props where we can – the Platform 9 ¾ sign from Harry Potter and luggage suitcases prove popular. Our Percy Main footbridge in Great Hall works well as a DJ area and also makes a great photo opportunity.”

One of the biggest challenges with using a public attraction for an event is the limited amount of time available for set-up. Some museums will have private galleries, which you will be able to access during opening hours, but if you want to use the main space, you will have to wait until closing time. Typically, this means you will only have between one to two hours to turn the space around.

“We prep prior to the museum closing, doing as much in advance where we can,” says Helen. “Being able to work quickly and efficiently to transform the space is vital in this scenario. Be sure to make use of the events team when it comes to set-up, as they will know what is realistic to achieve within this time frame.”

Top tips for achieving a speedy transformation include painting with lights – deploy coloured uplighters, downlighters, LEDs and gobos to instantly create atmosphere.

“Uplighters are a great way to showcase the exhibits further and highlight certain aspects. Lighting can also be used to steer guests on a particular journey through the space. LED light bases for tables are also a way of keeping guests’ attention focused on the event, so they almost forget they’re in the museum and have the joy of ‘remembering’ throughout the event!”

The most impressive transformations Helen has witnessed include when the museum was used as a film set for Victoria & Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench, and for a corporate event for McCain Foods.

“We accommodated the McCain Champion Potato Growers Annual Presentation Dinner, which saw the museum host a large pixel mesh screen, themed with sunflowers to reflect McCain’s branding.”

You will need to work closely with the event team at your venue to understand what can and can’t be done in the space, as protecting the exhibits is their number one priority.

According to Helen, “We’re unable to accommodate helium balloons due to our high ceilings, so instead we use air-filled balloons where required. Also, no naked flames or fire is allowed as this would pose an obvious risk to the museum’s collection. Instead, we use strategically placed electric tea lights or electric candles to create the same ambience.”

There will also be some areas that are off-limits to guests: “Use clever signage to help them to understand where they can and can’t explore during the event and make their journey through the venue as clear and concise as possible, whilst letting them take in the atmosphere and enjoy being in such unique surroundings. It’s a real treat to be able to dine surrounded by such incredible objects, so there is understandably a need for care and considerate enjoyment.”

Helen recommends helping attendees to make the most of your chosen venue by arranging private tours or for experts to come in and give a talk. “Make use of curators and out-of-hours tours so guests really feel like they are experiencing something special. It will enhance the feeling of exclusivity.”

Event organisers looking to use public attractions will be required to have public liability insurance in place, but Helen says incidents are rare. “We put all precautions in place to ensure exhibits don’t get damaged, such as risk assessments. Our events team is trained to lower the risks and foresee potential problems.”

Finally, you’ll need to ensure your event is derigged and pack away at the end of the night, since most museums are open seven days a week.

In conclusion, Helen tells us, “Holding your event in a public attraction isn’t without its challenges but these venues offer something incredibly special. Your venue’s event team will have the experience to help you work around the restrictions and really make the most of the creative and inspiring backdrop.”

Looking for other out-of-the-box venue ideas? Download our Complete Guide to Finding Your Event Venue.

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