Museum Exhibition Design, Part III

Mark Walhimer Exhibition Design 2 Comments


“Museum Exhibition Design”, a four part series.  Each week, I am writing a post about exhibition design.  Last week was Part II,  “Exhibition Design – Design”.  This week’s post will cover the phases of exhibition fabrication. The last post in the series will cover “Museum Exhibition Design – Installation”.

Picking up from last week’s post, the team will have completed during “Museum Exhibition Design – Design”:

  • Created an Exhibition Script 
  • Researched exhibition content
  • Completed Conceptual Design
  • Completed Schematic Design 
  • Completed Design Development / Media 
  • Completed Final Design 
  • Identified Fabrication and Production Partners
  • Completed Proof of Concept / Prototyping / Testing 

Anyone who thinks that exhibition design is the creation of drawings to is only 1/4 correct.  The process of exhibition design starts before drawing and continues through to installation of the exhibits.  I went to Pratt Institute, my thesis advisor Dr. Fogler, used to say “use your talent”.  What he meant was, talent is your ability to react to a given situation, you need to build into the exhibition design process the ability to react to the exhibits that have been drawn.  Industrial Designers often suffer from an inferiority complex, not being architects.  Dr. Fogler knew this and would say, “you are not making mini architecture, you are changing peoples lives”.  Now that drawings are becoming objects, you now can change peoples lives, give yourself the time and resources to use your talent as part of the process.

You should have identified three or four exhibition design firms during Design Development.  Be upfront, tell each of them one of the three will get the work.  If you haven’t already, go and visit each shop, and ask to see their metal working, wood working and electrical shop and ask to meet the project manager if they are sleeted.

Create an “open book” project, negotiate as part of the contract what changes will cost.  I have worked at two exhibition design firms as COO, some fabrication firms make their profit from “change orders” and some from repeat business, find out which kind of firm you are working with.  I don’t believe in “fixed bid” contracts, as a client, you don’t what to be in a position were you can’t make changes for fear of shocking change orders.   I don’t believe in open RFPs, I have found that such arrangements set up a scenario for shocking change orders, create a partnership with the fabricator, they need to make  profit and if you negotiate well, you will have an idea of their profit margin going into the project.  Once you have your completed drawings, send them out for bid and meet with each firm to review the drawings and answer questions.  Most important is to convey the intent of the exhibition and watch to see if the fabricator is interested.   Once you have the pricing from the three or four exhibition fabrication firms, create a matrix to select one firm.   Price, quality, team and capabilities are all part of the matrix to select the firm.  Thank each firm for participating.  Select an exhibition fabrication firm.

Roughly Museum Exhibition Fabrication can be divided into:

  1. Contract Negotiation
  2. Drawings
  3. Source and order materials, equipment
  4. AV Scripting and specification
  5. Box building
  6. Installing equipment
  7. Prototyping
  8. Video shooting, recording audio talent
  9. Finishing – laminate, paint, lighting
  10. Graphic Production
  11. A/V equipment installation and production
  12. Crating
  13. Set up

Lessons Learned:

  1. Partnership – I used to think the word “partnership” was silly, but I have always had preferred artists, fabricators and vendors, they are your project partners.  Look for partners and share the success of the project with them, if you are successful, they are successful.
  2. Contract with the shop – Request line item pricing, have included in the contract labor rates for changes, mark up and overhead charges.  I believe in progress payments, you don’t want to get ahead of progress on your project, an example of progress payments; 25% at contract signing, 35% At 50% Fabrication Completion (an example would be cases built, parts ordered), 30% at Shipment, 10% 30 Days after delivery.
  3. “Use your Talent” – Turn over your drawing to the exhibition fabrication shop and request shop drawings.  Review the drawing package with your exhibit maintenance team, tell them “this is your chance, we want these exhibits operational 98% of the time”, get their comments.  Review the drawings with your stockholders (be aware that most people can not read drawings), talk them through the package, get their comments.  Compile your “redlines” (revisions), set up a meeting with the fabricator to review your changes (be aware that the changes although significant should not be changing more than 10% of your drawing package).
  4. Sourcing – Some designers, specify each and every component, some leave the details to the fabrication firm.  I tend to specify the items the visitor will touch and leave the other equipment to the fabricator.  Request samples of materials, finishes, equipment and request product reviews of all equipment.
  5. Prototyping – As part of the contract identify which exhibits will need to be prototyped and how they will be prototyped.  As part of exhibition design , you will have proven your concepts, now you want to have full size working prototypes built.  Often parts of the prototype will become part of the final exhibit, identify how the exhibits will be tested and evaluated as part of fabrication.
  6. UL – Some countries and municipalities require certification of exhibits.  United Laboratories is the standard in the United States.  UL testing will require hiring of a local laboratory to review the exhibits.  If the exhibits pass they will receive UL certification.
  7. Set Up – Have all the exhibits set up at the fabricators and request that the staff and families of the fabricator use the exhibits prior to shipping.  Either hire an evaluator or if your are familiar with evaluation evaluate the exhibits prior to them leaving the fabricator’s shop
  8. Crating – If the exhibition is a traveling exhibition, have the exhibition crated at the fabricator’s and review crating prior to shipping
  9. Keys, On/Off & Maintenance Manual – Often I will specify key numbers as part of drawing packages (it is a pain walking around with a ring of keys, key cabinets to be keyed alike), all of the items such as key numbers, equipment warranty and “as built drawings” should be compelled in a notebook for review prior to shipping.
  10. One Year Warranty – I will only work with fabricators who will warranty their work for one year.  Warranty should cover repairs do to defects, not abuse or misuse.  A kid getting under an exhibit with a swiss army knife and making his own repairs is NOT a warranty item (it happened at LSC).

I know it sounds like you finished, but only specified parts of the exhibition will be functioning at shipment, the next post will cover “Exhibition Installation”.  I am realizing that I will need a fifth post to tie it all together.  Thank you all for the opportunity to put together my thoughts.  I started this blog four years ago as a resource for groups interested in starting a museum, it has been fun putting together my thoughts, into a (hopefully) cohesive process, thank you!

Links for specifics of exhibition design:

Traveling exhibitions design

Science Center exhibition design

Examples of each phase see “Museum Exhibition Design”

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

The image on the first page is that of the surface of Mars (thank you, Planetary Society) the image above is that of a prototype for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s “Space Odyssey” and a meeting with scientists to review the prototype and the resulting formations. I purposely included the image of the surface of Mars, the point of fabrication is to communicate the intent of content, or in other words, we wanted visitors to ask “what created the surface of the moon, wind, water, something else?”

Comments 2

  1. Great series of posts with lots of good points.  Always good to refresh memories.

    I think you might need to do more than one additional post.  I’d title it: If you build it you will have to maintain it.  Discuss how much it will cost to maintain the exhibit you just designed.  I like the 98% in 3 above.  A good way to establish expectations.  How about defining it as the number of days you will allow something to be “down” before repairs are affected?  How much time will you have to devote to maintnenance?  Will maintenance be in house or contracted out?  What is the life span of the equipment?  How will you handle spare parts?  Have you built in commonality of parts?  How to handle life cycle upgrades?  Are you specifiying parts that are proprietary and can only be obtained from one source?  What happens if that source dries up?


  2. Thank you for the kind words ! I love your idea for the additional post.  I am already thinking about calling it “Balancing Act”, too often museums err on the side on low interactivity for fear of maintenance issues, instead of building into the exhibits, updatability and changeability, love the idea! Plus, you bring up a great point about creating a culture of exhibit maintenance and expectations for visitor satisfaction, I will write it!  


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