Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Symbiosis: onwards and upwards

After 18 months MoDiP’s Symbiosis project is formally coming to an end although the project will influence our practice here on in. The aim of the project has been to establish a new model for engagement with industry in order to try to help MoDiP and other small specialist museums become more resilient. Our job now is to ensure the legacy of the project. That means nurturing the relationships the project has led to and continuing to be proactive in our relationship with the plastics and design industries.

The project

The project has had 3 aspects:

  • MoDiP working with an industry consultant who made contact with companies leading to collaborations between the companies and MoDiP.
  • Workshops at which representatives of a range of small specialist museums shared experiences of working with their related industries.
  • Development of a generic guide drawing on both MoDiP's experience and that of the project's partner museums to pass on the learning.

We are pleased to have collaborated with four companies of very different types. One is a maker of plastics packaging; another a design company; another the maker of an additive to make plastics more eco-friendly; and another a manufacturer of yachts, in which a large number of different plastics play a part. Although in subject matter the results relate to MoDiP's area of specialism, they provide examples of types of interaction which could be adapted to other subject areas:

  • mini exhibitions providing insights to the thinking that underpins the industry.
  • guides to significant issues relating to the industry.
  • guides to the use of materials used by the industry.

You can see the results of these collaborations here.

We held two workshops. The first was attended by representatives of 12 museums and the second of 10 museums. There was some overlap with 20 museums participating in total. Their specialisms include aspects of the army,  bricks, carpets, chairs, farming, hats, optometry, rural life, textiles (silk and embroidery), and sculpture. The information they shared about their existing museum engagement can be found here

The Symbiosis project has led to the development of a 10 Step guide which includes a wide range of downloadable documents such as sample introductory emails to companies and proposals for engagement with industry with prices attached, and templates to help with drawing up agreements and evaluating the collaborations undertaken.

One intention of the project was to see if collaborations with industry could be an alternative funding stream for small specialist museums. None of the collaborations we secured have brought in additional funding. We have found that companies, like all of us, find it is easier to give time, material and other in-kind support. This does however have monetary value.

It is currently too early to assess the benefits of the collaborations to the companies concerned however it is probably better to see the first collaboration as a way of beginning a relationship. If it goes well and it is an enjoyable and worthwhile experience for the company, it will lead on to other things, and if they do value it then the probability of the company making a financial contribution increases.

Advantages of the Symbiosis model

  • MoDiP has received considerable in kind support from and developed a strong relationship with four companies on which we hope to build in the future.
  • MoDiP has four significant online resources to enhance its website. These are resources that we would not have been able to make without collaboration with the companies involved.
  • We now have examples of interactions with companies to show to other companies in the future to demonstrate what we can provide.
  • MoDiP staff has had privileged access to four companies resulting in a step change in its understanding of how the plastics and design industries operate and the challenges of manufacturing in plastics. Our expertise has greatly increased.
  • A significant number of objects have been donated to the museum.
  • Objects made of plastics tend to be anonymous but these objects have come with detailed documentation of a depth seldom possible to achieve.
  • The confidence of MoDiP workforce has been increased in terms of how to approach and talk to members of industry. 
  • MoDiP has made meaningful and useful contact with other small museums which face similar problems with which we hope to have ongoing fruitful relationships.
  • We hope that the project has led to the development of a useful resource which will have ongoing value within the museum sector.

Disadvantages of the Symbiosis model

  • The employment of an industry consultant is expensive and probably not something that would be possible for many museums.
  • We contacted 70 companies and this led only to 5 meetings and 4 collaborations. This required a lot of investment. In normal circumstances it would be difficult to free up the resource.
  • Each collaboration took a long time to secure. The shortest time from initial contact to the go ahead to collaborate was six months, the longest nine months. It requires a lot of stamina on the part of museum staff.
  • We received support in-kind but no financial contribution.

The Symbiosis project and the collaborations with industry that it has engendered have certainly been of immense benefit for MoDiP. As this account of the advantages and disadvantages demonstrates, the advantages of the Symbiosis journey far outweigh the disadvantages. 


Although technically the project is over it is in fact the time when it begins for real with the application of the learning becoming normal MoDiP practice.  We are delighted to have formed closer relationships with industry and intend to keep in touch with the companies we have worked with to see where else the collaboration can lead. We will also contact the large number of companies who did not see any merit in collaborating with us to show what the project has achieved in this respect.  MoDiP staff now feels in a much stronger position from which to approach companies for collaborations in the future. Participants at the workshops left inspired to be more energetic and imaginative in their relationships with industry and it is hoped that the 10 Steps guide will help to extend the learning of the project to other small specialist museums. 

Susan Lambert (Head of MoDiP)

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