The Future of Museum Exhibition Design, Part I

Mark Walhimer Exhibition Design, Museum Planning, Working in museums 3 Comments

The Future of Museum Exhibition Design

I am currently working on projects in Hong Kong, Mexico City, San Francisco & New York. Each of the projects is a different type of museum, with various scopes of work from very small to big.

In the “old” days exhibition designers had a studio, within the studio you would have an Exhibition Designer, Exhibit Developer, Graphic Designer, Project Manager and maybe a Content Developer, Book Keeper and a Principal. The Principal was the owner of the firm and was responsible for getting new projects and keeping the staff busy. Those days are gone.

It was a very pleasant atmosphere, people could gather in a conference room and discuss project objectives or a desired “Look and Feel” of a project. With globalization, the project maybe in one country with a project team spread over the world. What is happening is a specialization within the field. Of the projects we are working on, we have two Art Museums, a Children’s Museum and a traveling history exhibition. In the past museums were not as specialized, Science Centers sprang up in the 80’s and 90’s, traveling exhibitions went through a boom and now we have museum types that did not exist twenty years ago. It is difficult or impossible to find a small group of people that can handle the new entire spectrum of museum projects.

The new spectrum of museum projects includes; Art Museums, Contemporary Art Museums, Moving Image Museums, Interactive Science Centers, History Museums, Natural History Museums, Corporate Museums, etc.. The process of exhibition is similar for different types of museums, but for each type of museum project there are nuances that are very important , such as; the playfulness of a children’s museum is difficult to work on along side a war museum. The project team needs to be different for each type of museum project.

So…I no longer have a studio per se.  I assemble a project team for each project, when possible using talent near the location of the museum. I have been trying to get my head around the new working system. In the past I have been the Vice President of Exhibits at several museums, now I think of myself as a free lance VP of Exhibits, Create a project team to, expand, energize and create new exhibition or museum. This approach has worked very well. We become part of the project team, always thinking of the benefit to the overall project.

“In the future, people will work “stints” rather than “jobs”, writes Glen Hiemstra

In the real future you will be working at a stint rather than a job. To work at a stint is to become part of a project team for 18 months, followed by joining three friends doing a start-up business that folds after two years, after which you sign on with a multinational which disappears in a merger…and the beat goes on. This requires a reinvention of the social contract around security and benefits.

Since you have become a stint worker, you will have shifted from being an employee to being a free agent. This will not be new, as increasing numbers of us are already free agents in 2011, but for most of us it requires a change in perspective. The biggest change involves learning how to think of your self as a company of one.

The most profound shift may be the disappearance of employers as we have known them, as they are replaced by amoeba-like networks that come together to complete certain projects and tasks. Consider a feature film production. The project is conceived, some key people flesh out a proposal, funding is arranged, a global network of talent is hired, they work together for weeks or months, and then disband, never to work in that exact combination again.

Obviously there will remain many exceptions to this enterprise model. The corner grocer, the local coffee house, the dry-cleaning store down the street will likely continue to be small and stable, with fixed employees, though even these employees will likely be free agents working on a stint.

The places that we work will change, especially for knowledge workers – those of us who commute to offices today mostly to sit and type words on machines, look at computer screens, and talk to other people in person and by phone. Tomorrow’s machines will make today’s computing and communication look primitive, as they enable full 3-D, immersive and visual interaction with others in real time wherever you are. Data and information will be in the Cloud – available everywhere, all the time. Thus, we will come to the office only when it is really desirable to get together. The offices themselves will consist of inviting meeting and collaboration spaces, and “hotel” stations for free agents to plug in. The typical company may use half the office footprint it uses today for the same number of people.”

With a combination of Google Docs, Dropbox, Basecamp and Skype I can work from anywhere with multiple project teams. So far it seems to be working.


  • Can be difficult understanding each team member’s motivation
  • Potentially never meeting client or team members face to face
  • Tougher to manage team members in different time zones
  • More important to have a strong consistent vision throughout project
  • Forces more conversations amongst team members


  • Doesn’t allow the making of “mini architecture”
  • Lower overhead lower costs for client
  • Greater flexibility, more fluidity
  • Can “try” out new people and ideas with less risk
  • Don’t have to fit staff to the project, but find best people for the project
  • Forces more conversations amongst team members

My sense is this new “Hive Project Approach” (people coming together for a project) will create new museum models. The new system is very similar to independent film production, a group of people coming together for a project. You learn a lot about each other during the process and some members will work together in the future.  I see the greatest advantage to the new process, in  the need for a strong concept from beginning to end.  Often when working with the same people over and over, you can “force”  a concept because of the existing relationships.  With the new model, each team member needs to understand and incorporate the concept into their work, often requiring more upfront work, resulting in a clearer vision on the project.  I often call in “making mini architecture”, you can design the space without understanding how people will use or absorb the content.   Exhibitions are different than architecture, because of the need for conveying content.  The new approach requires all team members to understand the overall vision to move forward, creating greater consistency.

Quote for the From The Futurist:

*Ray & Charles Eames, exhibition designers of many projects including Mathematica

Comments 3

  1. Hi Mark,

    I think it’s exciting to explore new models for creating exhibitions.  But I do wonder about ‘stint work’ and what that means in a world where many people have mortgages to pay and children to raise, and therefore want a bit more certainty and predictability in the way they earn a living. Stint working may be something that we can only get away with doing in our twenties (or come back to in our fifties and sixties when the house is paid off and the kids are in college).  

    How have you found these issues have affected the teams you work with?

  2. Hi Regan,
      Thank you for the note.  

      It is a sad new reality, it is not just museum jobs that are going the direction of “stints”, but all jobs.  

      I see the reasons as globalization, specialization of jobs and the Supreme Court decision that Corporations are “people”.  With the understanding that corporations are “people”, there is now a perception that corporations will step up for philanthropic support.  The truth is corporations will always serve themselves and their share holders first (it is their mission as a corporation).    

      The USA is now moving in the the direction that corporations will supply the safety net for families instead of government.    If Romney wins he plans on cutting funding to the NEA,  In turn hoping that corporations will make up the difference.

      Of course this effects people who work on museum projects.  Museums as a whole are suffering as I have never seen before.  I started this post as a multiple part post to solicit ideas.  So far I have thought of creating a museum workers union, to try to standardize the work and pay of museum staff.  I welcome other ideas.  


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