Tendering in museums: a fundamental element to successful capital projects

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: Centre Karen Whitting, Director of Content and Programmes at the RAF Museum, and to the left Prince Edward Earl of Wessex and right, Maggie Appleton, CEO RAF Museum

Throughout any given year there are hundreds of capital projects taking place in the museums and heritage sector across the UK, and whether they be a new construction, redevelopment of an existing space, expansion or restoration, they all need the same ingredients: excellent contractors and suppliers to make them work.

In this article Museums + Heritage Advisor talks to Karen Whitting, Director of Content and Programmes at the RAF Museum, who played a lead role in its £26m capital project completed last year – and has also been involved in past tendering for projects at Fort Nelson and the Royal Armouries – about getting the best out of the process and why it’s not only necessary but vital

As well as her insight, Advisor also features Ask the Expert Q&As from DJ Willrich, which offers ideas for improvements to the tendering process, and Absolute on how they approach tendering

The RAF Centenary Programme and Transformation at the London site was made up of a number of projects focusing on the landscape and threshold of the museum while also improving the visitor facilities and interpretation of the RAF collection and stories.

As Whitting explains, tendering is a legal process and is something the RAF Museum as a nationally funded museum is required to do. But before going out to tender there are many frameworks to consider. The museum abides by a HM Treasury document, Managing Public Money, and is also, at the moment at least, in the EU, which means it adheres to the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). As well as this there are also funder requirements such as those included in a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Heritage Fund).


“So, before we went out to tender, we built a grid, which outlined all the different procurement thresholds and what we need to do at each level to satisfy all of those different frameworks,” she says. The RAF team also spent two months working on the project brief that would be vital to the tendering process as well as the implementation of the various projects as it would set out a clear plan for the aims and objectives that the museum wanted to achieve.

“Tendering is vital. The outcome of your project and the difference it’s going to make for your visitors and local community and whoever you are targeting is actually going to come down to the quality of the contractors and suppliers you are working with. How much they want to be engaged in that particular project, have they got more than just a financial interest to buy in to what you are doing, have they got a particular interest in your organisation, your course or something that makes them standout?”

For Whitting, tendering is absolutely fundamental and worth investing the time and energy in, because, she says, the outcome of your project three-or-four years later is going to depend on that being done well.


She says much of this depends on the core museum team spending a lot of time getting it right. And this means understanding exactly what you want to achieve by starting with a brief. She says normally this would be developed as a series of workshops that make sure all the departments that are stakeholders in each element have had a say.

“We might even go externally and consult with audiences or partners to ensure the brief is the best it can be before going out to tender. This would include formulating the desired outcome of the project, who it is targeting, redlines around sustainability, reusing materials, health and safety and insurance.”

The more detail you can put into the brief, or the tender specification, she says the better your tendering process is going to be. The RAF conducted evaluation with its contractors who said their briefing was helpful throughout the process.

That is one approach, she says. Another approach would be to ‘keep it really light’ and get the company you want to work with on board and let them shape the brief.

“For us we did both. We gave the successful tenderers lots of opportunity to work with us and explain what was non-negotiable and what was negotiable and ask them what value they could bring to the project.”

On large contracts there is an opportunity to complete a PPQ, or pre-qualification questionnaire. This allows companies to show an interest in a project without spending too much time in the initial process and in turn allows the client to make a shortlist of the companies they want to take forward to a second stage. “This works because companies are really restricted in their resources and what they don’t want to do is spend months on a tender that is not successful for them. So, we are always mindful that we make the processes as economically viable for suppliers as possible.”

The pool is then smaller, and the companies shortlisted know they have got more opportunity to win at the next stage and are more willing to put in a concept proposal. A lot of these companies, says Whitting, are very creative but also very small. She says they are agile and will bring in temporary staff when needed and they don’t have time to put a particular person or team on to tendering in the same way as a large company would do to get a global contract. But they might be the right company.

Level playing field

“So, you want to make a level playing field, make it as easy as possible for people to get involved in your project. And in that way, you get to the smaller and medium-size companies not just the big players who are always going to tender.”

The RAF needed to target medium size companies who had an interest in working in heritage and also ensure they were financially sustainable and secure. They needed to know the companies were still going to exist and be successful throughout the project!

Best value

One of the main advantages of tendering is that it gives a museum the opportunity to get best value, which is extremely important when investing public money. But it also provides the opportunity to provide quality to a project.

“For major tenders we always want to know who we are going to be working with and we usually ask for a very small shortlist by the time we get there for people to come in and meet us. We want to look them in the eye, and we want to know they are going to be people who have empathy with us and that in the end we are going to want to spend time with. You can have robust conversations and assess whether they are going to respond appropriately to challenges. So, that stage of the tendering is really important, but you need to get it right in terms of how many people and ideas you are going to assess because it’s your time and theirs.”

This means having a very clear criteria from the beginning, which, as a legal requirement, means you need to share with the companies how you are going to be scoring. For example what the percentages are, what the weighting is going to be around your scoring, how you are going to take the company’s submission and break that up into numbers.

With any tendering process there is going to be a great deal of importance placed on the financial side but Whitting says this needs to be balanced with quality, experience in similar projects, and the experience of the team the potential contractor or supplier is putting forward. “There are all kinds of things you can sift through and then you can decide overall whether in this project finances override everything else or if there is more of a balance between quality and getting the right team and money. So, in the end you might actually choose a higher bid, not go for the lowest, because it brings the quality and the team that you want to work with.”

One of the bigger challenges is that companies tendering might be loading more for risk, so that might be putting prices up because there not sure about the financial climate and what this will mean to inflation and material cost.

“Currently, there seems to be more uncertainty that leads people to play safe, which means that you can get submissions way over the budget that you are working with. On the other hand, if a company comes in so much lower than the other then we would always go back to that company and say ‘have you missed something?’ We go through every line of their tender to make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

One of the big challenges of capital projects facing many cultural organisations is the experience within the team, particularly if you are a small museum. “Have you done procurement before? Where can you learn from, how long will it take for you to get up to speed? The first OJEU framework tender that I ran for the Royal Armouries, I taught myself. I wouldn’t recommend it, although it proved successful.”

On this occasion, where the RAF Museum needed to go to OJEU for its capital works, the team brought in capital project managers, Ridge and Partners to lead and advise them on forms of contract as they had expertise in the build area and they also knew what the landscape was like outside of the heritage sector.

“They made such a difference to the quality of our project outcomes. They were part of the tender for us to bring them in – us making that decision to bring in that particular company had such a wide-reaching effect on the outcome of our project, it has been quite incredible. If you can afford to ask for help then you will have a critical friend.”

One improvement that Whitting believes would help the museums and heritage sector is to see all of the different frameworks involved with tendering put into one place such as an online hub. “I don’t think that there is enough visibility of those frameworks in our sector. But if there was a resource for people in museums and heritage to know these are the places for a relevant framework it would be really amazing and would help us all.”

For example, the government may have run an OJEU tendering process without any promise of a contract and created a shortlist of a dozen companies who are approved. If the sector where able to access this information they could, for example, run a mini competition with just that group of approved companies.

Tendering, if you invest the time in it, she says will pay back so many dividends later on, from finding exactly the right people to work with to making sure you are going to come in on time and in budget because you have chosen the right people who invest their time and emotional engagement in your project. “If they believe in you, they will give you everything they can from completion of the project to giving good evaluation to go back to funders, trustees and say this is what we achieved, this is what didn’t happen and this is what we have learnt.”

Whitting’s advice to those about to embark on a tendering process is, rather than view tendering as something that is frustrating, complicated and time-consuming, it’s much better to flip it round and say ‘actually if I invest in this now, it’s going to have all of these positive outcomes for my organisation, my audience and for the companies I’m going to work with’.