Museum Exhibition Design – Part I

Mark Walhimer Exhibition Design 5 Comments

Museum Exhibition Design – Part I

Decided to put together a four part series; “Museum Exhibition Design”.   Each week I will write a blog post about exhibition design.  Part I is about the first step in exhibition design – Planning.  Future posts will cover, the phases of exhibition design, exhibition fabrication and exhibition installation.   Before anyone draws anything, the team needs to organize the thinking about and behind the exhibition.

  1. Who is the visitor?  Someone will need to make a decision to visit the exhibition.  They will travel to the museum by either car, taxi, bus, subway or walking to arrive at the museum’s front door.  Why did they decide to visit?  We each have our own internal drives to make decisions.  Try to understand why is the visitor choosing to visit your planned exhibition.  What is influencing their decision to spend the time (and money) to arrive at your front door to see the exhibition.  It is often helpful to segment the types of visitors; “All “A” Parent”, “Curious Tourist”, “Local Mom”, “Sunday Family”, each will have their own motivations for visiting the exhibition, try to understand the “why” they would want to visit the exhibition.
  2. Exhibition Plan – Every museum is divided into areas.  The areas may be called galleries or zones or era or a “topic”.  An exhibition consists of a group of exhibits organized around a topic.  How will this exhibition “fit” into the overall museum experience?  Often you can “map” a visitors experience through a museum; park the car, buy the tickets, use the bathroom, look at the museum map.  Where will this exhibition fall in the visitor’s museum experience?
  3. What is the visitor hoping to gain? Survey potential exhibition visitors about the exhibition topic.  What is their knowledge level?  What are their interests?  What are their questions.  Many times I have set up tables in the foyer of a museum and asked just those questions.  Often the more casual the better.  Have a few clip boards, a simple sign and  Often museums, think about what we are trying to communicate, but as “visitor-centric” museum, try to define what is the visitor trying to gain.  Whatever the topic survey typical visitors and ask hwta are they hoping to gain from the proposed exhibition.
  4. Exhibition Description – In simple language describe the exhibition.  What is the topic of the exhibition?  Age range for the visitors (2-102 is not an age range)?  What is the atmosphere of the exhibition?
  5. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  – What are the plans for accessibility for all visitors?  I often start with an accessibility graphic, how will people with accessibility needs visit the exhibition?
  6. Green Exhibition – What is your plan for exhibition materials ? What is life span of the exhibition?  Reuse or recycling of the exhibition?
  7. “The Box” What is the size of the exhibition space?, What is the electrical supply to the space? amps? outlet locations?, What is the access to the space? Elevator size? Door sizes? Often is best to start with a site survey of the exhibition space.  A  site survey is a drawing of the exhibition space, showing the locations of electrical outlets, HVAC registers and a reflected ceiling plan of the lighting placement.
  8. Project Charter – A project charter is a contract between the museum and project stakeholder’s describing the roles and responsibilities for each team member.  A sample Museum Exhibition Project Charter
  9. Data Base – Create a numbering system for the exhibition.  Artifacts, drawings, exhibit elements, video, electrical outlets, will each need a number, start at the beginning with a numbering system.  The National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry, has a free database that is very good.
  10. The Numbers – What is the budget for the exhibition? Staffing needs? What is the schedule for the exhibition design, fabrication and installation? How many people are you planning on visiting the exhibition? How will you market the exhibition? How will you reach the potential visitors to the exhibition, internet marketing? print advertising? placement on television shows?  It is never too early to start planning the exhibition marketing.

The steps of the exhibition design process are similar to Art Museums, Natural History Museums, Science Centers and Children’s Museums.  The differences are in the content development, the design process is the same.


Comments 5

  1. Hi Mark,


    Thanks for taking the time
    to share so much useful info about the exhibit design process.  A few additional items I would add to
    your list include:


    Design Team – Establish who
    will be working on the exhibit and clearly define each person’s role.  Make sure upper management buys into
    the overall concept of the exhibit. 


    Education – If the exhibit is designed for K-12 audience, it
    may be helpful to start thinking about how to focus elements of the exhibit to meet
    state curriculum guidelines.


    Community Partners – Is there a fit with any local,
    regional or national  organizations
    for content/data, co-promotion, and/or development of ideas.  This can be especially useful when it
    comes time to launch the exhibit and reach new audience…

  2. Hi Tina,
     Thank you for the comments!  Did you have a chance to open the Project Charter? #8?  The project charter is a document that outlines all of the items you mention.

    A Project Charter is a “contract” between the institution and the project team authorizing them to move forward with the project. The word “contract” is in quotation marks, because the Project Charter serves as a project Letter of Intent, outlining the roles, responsibilities and goals of the project, it is not a legal document.


  3. Dear Mark,

    Lasallian greetings of peace and concord!

    We, Dianne Mariz R. Lapinig and Edgar P. Arnoza, Jr. a 5th year Architecture students of La Salle University, Ozamiz City, Philippines would like to acquire personal data and guidelines necessary for our proposal entitled Science Exhibition Research Center.

    In line with this, we would like to ask your advice to allow us to gather the needed data and information about the detailed specifications of different exhibits.

    Your answer for our request will be greatly help us to finish our paper works.

    Thank you and God Bless!

    One in St. La Salle!

  4. Post

    Thank you, Zoltan,
    I am passionate about the power of museums to change people and communities.
    Glad you found the website helpful.
    – Mark

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