Group Focus feature on the NMSI - 'Exploring Space'

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The capital’s innovative Science Museum pushes all the right buttons for corporate events, discovers Mark Hayes, but it’s not all that the NMSI Group has to offer. Anna Longmore heads north to meet the rest of this fascinating family of venues

Whether it’s marvelling at giant jumbo jet tyres, gawping skywards in the Flight gallery or hitting buttons in the Launch Pad, everyone has a fond memory of the Science Museum. This treasure trove of pioneering science has been firing the imaginations of millions of visitors for 100 years; it will be celebrating its centenary through to next June. And, yes, it did receive a telegram from the Queen. There are a few other things that visitors probably don’t realise. One is that the Science Museum is part of a collection, the National Museums of Science & Industry (NMSI). Other members of this family, formed 25 years ago, are the National Railway Museum in York, the National Media Museum in Bradford and the Science Museum at Wroughton, Wiltshire.
The venues aren’t just far removed in geographical terms – they’re worlds apart in size, subject matter and the range of event spaces they offer. But they’re towering pillars in their respective fields. The venerable Science Museum – the granddaddy of the bunch – houses more ‘world-first’ inventions than any other museum of its kind; the plucky young National Media Museum is home to interactive TV studios and the first IMAX cinema in Europe; and the sprawling National Railway Museum is the largest of its kind in the world.
As for the Science Museum at Wroughton, many people aren’t aware it even exists. It’s a storage site on a 545-acre former World War II airfield in Wiltshire, and home to the vast bulk of the Science Museum’s collections. About 8% of its 220,000 objects are on display in London, and the rest are housed in seven giant aircraft hangars.
Objects held there include a Lockheed Constellation airliner that the Rolling Stones once toured in, the bike that Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman rode in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and the Neptune submarine used in the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. The site offers endless possibilities for large-scale events and filming.
Back in London, it’s a different story. Running one of London’s busiest attractions alongside a schedule of 200 private events takes some masterful organisation. ‘The majority of events are in the large main galleries, so they’re in the evening. We can accomodate from 100 to 600 in each gallery,’ says events manager Sam Owen. After the last of the day’s visitors leave at 6pm, it takes production staff just 45 minutes to transform the Science Museum into its sophisticated evening incarnation.
Guests generally enter straight into the dramatic three-storey Energy Hall, where up to 600 people can mingle among mighty steam engines, some of which are up to 300 years old. Then it’s through the atmospheric Exploring Space gallery, with its rockets and model of the Eagle Moon lander, and on to the Making the Modern World gallery.
Wandering into the latter gallery, you’ll find yourself in particularly fertile territory for conversation. ‘Making the Modern World is the most popular area for dinners because it has something for everyone,’ says Owen. ‘It covers the Industrial Revolution, the things that have formed modern society as we know it – Stephenson’s Rocket as the beginning of trains and the Model T Ford for cars. Right up to the year 2000.’
Given the line-up of iconic inventions, it’s no surprise that the gallery sets the scene for numerous product launches too. ‘New products are in very good company,’ he says, adding that launches are often paired with a relevant exhibit. ‘The real advantage is that it’s not a massive empty space. All the tables are right in among the objects.’ Meanwhile, organisers looking for a clean-lined contemporary setting often opt for the neighbouring Wellcome Wing, the newest part of the museum. ‘It looks like it’s already lit for an event; it has that futuristic feel,’ says Owen. Up to 600 guests can mingle around Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 car and the space can seat 350 for dinner. The museum’s hi-tech new simulator ride, Force Field, allows groups of 50 to experience the Legend of Apollo – a fun bonus at events.
T-Mobile took advantage of the Wellcome Wing’s slick modern feel when they chose the venue for a drinks reception for 500 that took place before a street gig played by the New Young Pony Club. ‘They served cocktails in test tubes and had all the people serving them dressed in white coats and goggles,’ says Owen. ‘Then they moved the guests through to Level 2 for the concert.’
While the museum’s galleries bring bags of character to a reception or dinner, the venue is equally able to tick the ‘blank canvas’ box. Level 2 is a 950sq m whitewashed exhibition space where Siemens recently held a spectacular space-themed customer awards night. Styled as the Apollo Mission Control Centre, the space became the backdrop for a theatrical ‘launch’ using a life-size rocket and projection, before an astronaut took a ‘space walk’ over guests’ heads as they sat down to dinner. The spaceman stunt was made possible thanks to rigging points all the way down the gallery that are usually used for lighting when the area becomes a catwalk for fashion launches.
‘Level 2 was a fantastic space in which to stage our event for Siemens,’ says Adam Blackwood, MD of event organiser Private Drama. ‘We were able to introduce the space exploration theme for the reception in the ground-floor gallery, then when guests went upstairs they were absolutely wowed by having their awards dinner in Houston Mission Control. The facilities at the Science Museum were perfect for realising the creative concept and the events team couldn’t have been more helpful.’
Up on the third floor – accessed by a pair of large glass lifts – is the Flight Gallery, which features exhibits about the beginning of flight at one end and progresses up to a cross-section of a 747 fuselage (complete with frighteningly thin metal skin, which certainly creates a talking point). The versatility of this space is evident from its back catalogue of events, from the annual dinner for the Institute of Directors to a Razorlight gig. It’s the largest of the galleries for a seated dinner – holding up to 500 – and has arguably the best sight lines.
Any of the galleries and event spaces can be used in conjunction with the museum’s 416-seater IMAX 3D theatre. At the premiere of a Doctor Who Christmas special, David Tennant and other stars attended a reception in the Wellcome Wing followed by a screening in the IMAX. A spectacular Titanic-themed party was held on Level 2.
For more day-to-day corporate engagements, groups can book the dedicated meetings area, which has the advantage of its own street entrance and is available throughout the day and evening. The Director’s Suite comprises four rooms: the largest, the Fellows Room, is a cosy and traditional bookcase-filled space that can seat 110 theatre-style or 80 for dinner.
Before they begin the day’s serious business, delegates often start with an hour gallivanting around the museum’s interactive Launchpad area before it opens to the public at 10am. ‘They can try the experiments out and turn into big kids – they’re loosened up and excited before the conference begins – that’s the idea,’ says Owen. The events team can also build in a visit to the IMAX theatre, to one of the exhibitions, or a tour or simulator ride. With budgets pushed further up the priority list this year, organisers can often make the mistake of writing off high-profile venues like the Science Museum before they’ve even checked the figures. ‘There’s a perception that holding an event in a unique venue of this sort is wildly expensive,’ Sam says. ‘But a lot of our approved contractors are coming through with some really good deals on catering, production and entertainment, meaning that events don’t have to cost that much here.’
With corporate social responsibility also soaring up the agenda, it’s worth noting that any profit the events team makes goes straight back into the museum. ‘At the moment people don’t want to be seen spending money, but because we’re a charity there’s a good feeling around that,’ explains Owen. ‘It’s more acceptable, I feel, for people to be spending money here, to be giving something back.’

National Railway Museum
If you think the National Railway Museum sounds like the kind of twee provincial attraction that only appeals to coach parties and trainspotters, you’re in for a surprise. Not only is it England’s most popular museum outside London – visited by over 800,000 people a year – it also attracts 363 conferences and more than 100 dinners, which are overseen by a five-strong events team. And not a chintzy tea room in sight.
Set in the huge goods depot buildings of York station, the scale alone is impressive; both the aptly named Great Hall and the atmospheric Station Hall house a colourful line-up of carriages, a real-life railway bridge and the huge gates from Euston Station.
And don’t assume that the appeal of the NRM is limited to the anorak brigade. The atmosphere in the carriage-lined Station Hall at night is a guaranteed charmer and you can’t fail to be spooked by the stories and sightings on pre-dinner ghost tours led by the venue’s resident paranormal investigator.
As you’d expect, space is a big selling point at the NRM and a new range of teambuilding exercises make the most of it: ‘shunting’ involves using a diesel locomotive to rearrange full-size rail wagons. Alternatively groups can hone their non-verbal communication skills using bell signalling and semaphore flags, and next year will see the arrival of Stephenson’s Rocket, so you can learn to drive the pioneering locomotive.
Meanwhile, Station Hall can seat up to 800 for dinner against a fine backdrop of exposed brickwork, iron pillars and struts which evokes the classic old station halls of yesteryear. Enjoy England chose it for a recent awards dinner and it’s also the setting for the popular Christmas ‘Dine and Dance’ packages, when the vintage theme can be carried through in decoration, dress and entertainment , which comes in the form of a Sinatra tribute act. The ranks of stately Royal Carriages – Queen Victoria’s is among them – provide a long red-carpeted sweep for pre-dinner drinks receptions.
Behind the scenes, the warehouse and workshop areas are just as interesting as the more ‘front of house’ spaces. The Warehouse is a treasure trove of railway-related paraphernalia – vintage station signs, old-fashioned engines, bullion from the Great Train Robbery – while visitors to the workshop can see engineers restoring the famous Flying Scotsman, due for completion next year. Back here, teambuilding packages or curator talks can be based around artefacts and props in the store. The most recent – and understandably, the most popular – addition to the venue is the Valiant, a decommissioned Orient Express carriage that serves as a striking private dining and meeting room for 30. Decked out with a stately walnut and crimson-carpeted interior and a private platform for boarding, the carriage arrived in September 2008 after numerous client requests to hold events in individual collection carriages.
At the other end of the scale, for plain vanilla conferencing, there’s a smart self-contained conference centre – six well-appointed rooms holding up to 140 and a 26-seater lecture theatre that was extended and refurbished last year.

National Media Museum
It’s hard to believe that Bradford’s National Media Museum celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Built back in 1983 as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, and renamed in 2006, this landmark venue has reinvented itself more times than Madonna – and it’s still looking just as good for its age. Since the distinctive glazed atrium was added in 1999, a working tri-media studio has been launched and £3m has been spent on an interactive television gallery. Last year, an exhibition celebrating the ‘father of photojournalism’, Henri Cartier-Bresson, stopped in on its way between New York and Paris, and Bond producer Michael Wilson chairs the board of trustees. This venue is no couch potato.
Each of the seven storeys has something different to offer corporate organisers, but interaction is a focus throughout. For truly hands-on events, a fully functional TV studio and gallery tucked away on the top floor can be used for teambuilding. Guided by ex-BBC producers and floor managers, delegates have free run of the facilities to present, film and edit a TV programme. But even larger events can incorporate an interactive element in Experience TV, a gallery that houses two mock studio set-ups. It’s particularly popular for Christmas parties – when guests are free to operate the cameras and film themselves reading the news.
Networking events are a particularly strong suit here. Up on the sixth floor, the Profiles gallery might not be a favourite with the public but it has real appeal as a backdrop for drinks receptions. With views across the city, a collection of real Oscar and BAFTA trophies and a window into the IMAX projection suite, there are plenty of talking points. Similarly, TV Heaven is packed with paraphernalia from the history of the small screen, from the original characters (from The Wombles and Rainbow to Wallace and Gromit) while a series of TV screens can play footage from the museum’s extensive archives.
As you’d expect, cutting-edge AV technology is a major selling point at the NMM. It’s one of the few venues in the country that can screen films in any format – from Cinerama to Blu-Ray – across its three screens. Conferences, product launches and premieres regularly take over the 100-capacity auditorium of the Cubby Broccoli cinema or the Pictureville, which has 300 generous, comfortable seats and £90,000-worth of projection facilities. A 3D IMAX screen completes the package.
The museum is just as comfortable with large-scale entertaining – clients have free reign of the place on Mondays in school term time and after hours – with the Kodak Gallery (exploring the history of photography) on the lower-ground floor and the atrium itself providing distinct backdrops for up to 300 standing, with all catering provided in-house.
A bank of expert curators and industry professionals are on hand so that organisers can easily incorporate guided tours or talks into a programme.

The Dana Centre
The Science Museum opened The Dana Centre on nearby Queensgate in 2003. The compact purpose-built venue was designed as a forum for adult discussion where the public can freely explore issues in contemporary science through dialogue, interaction, performance and art. The programme of events includes talks, debates and workshops on subjects such as the relationship between science and dance, man-made evolution and sexual attraction.
It’s a bright contemporary venue with first-class digital facilities for corporate events. Three of the building’s spaces can be hired daytime or evening, with charges starting at £1,000 +VAT. The can hold 110 theatre-style or 40 in a boardroom or cabaret layout; the can take 50 theatre-style or 20 boardroom; and the informal d.café can accommodate buffet lunches for up to 40 or stand-up evening receptions for 100 and dinners for up to 50.


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