What Collectors Can Learn From Museum Exhibit Design

What Collectors Can Learn From Museum Exhibit Design

While there are countless genres of things to collect, there’s one common thread that connects them: where and how to display it all! It’s the same dilemma that most every museum struggles with as well. So what can a private collector learn from a museum? I asked myself the same question.

Lessons Learned from Museum Exhibit Design

As I researched what makes great museums great, I stumbled upon an old research paper by Dr. Saul Carliner, entitled Lessons Learned from Museum Exhibit Design. Surprisingly, the purpose of his research was not to build a better museum. Instead, he wanted to learn exhibit design best practices and take those lessons back to the professional communities of instructional and information designers; specifically web designers! Being that I love both museums and website design, I was hooked!

10 Ingredients for a Compelling Museum Exhibit Design

In his paper, Dr. Carliner distilled his observations of exquisite museum exhibit design into 10 ingredients. I’ve adapted those ingredients into the diagram below.

10 Ingredients for a Compelling Museum Exhibit Design

10 Ingredients for a Compelling Museum Exhibit Design

While most of the ingredients are straightforward and easily understood, I would like to expand on a few of the most important principles of great exhibit design.

Purposeful Content

One of the most important decisions a museum must make, is choosing what to display. Every choice is purposeful. To keep a collection from overwhelming guests, the museum must decide upon themes; dividing complex topics into a limited number of key stories.   

Loaning Items to a Museum? Here’s What You Need to Know

Creating themed exhibits is a great way to showcase specific objects from a much larger collection. Once the exhibit theme(s) has been decided upon, objects are then chosen to bring the story alive.  

Stories Sell

In the world of professional sales, there’s a phrase that goes, “facts tell, stories sell.” The point is, instead of repeatedly beating someone over the head with “facts”, tell them a story. Stories are relatable, familiar, and inviting. People can place themselves inside a story, and feel what the main character feels. Stories elicit emotions.

As Dr. Carliner observed, “Within the exhibit, exhibit designers use common storytelling techniques such as immersion, juxtaposition, repetition, and subliminal messages to engage the visitor.”

Immersion is a technique that physically places visitors in the environment of the story and its objects. For example, in the America on the Move exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the museum places the visitors in the middle of the environment to see historic artifacts as they once were.

America on the Move exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

In the America on the Move exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the museum places the visitors in the middle of the environment to see historic artifacts as they once were.

Another story telling technique is juxtaposition; two opposing images or concepts positioned near one another so visitors can make the contrast. For example, in a Civil War museum, a uniform exhibit may display the uniform of a Union officer next to a Confederate uniform.

Civil War Uniform Display

The Remington Nature Center in St. Joseph, Missouri displays officer’s uniforms of former St. Joseph mayor and Confederate General M. Jeff Thompson, as well as Union Colonel Robert Smith.

With repetition, an image or concept appears multiple times throughout an exhibit to reinforce a point. This is purposely done to increase the likelihood that visitors will remember them. Designers also weave subliminal messages into their exhibits, in the hope they’ll make an unconscious impact on visitors.

In addition to those specific design techniques, a captivating exhibit uses engaging characters to bring the exhibit’s story to life. Most museums will use compelling characters from real-life, while others may draw upon research to develop fictional characters. A great museum captures the visitor’s curiosity by immersing them in a story, or a series of stories. Much like a great novel, a great museum uses riveting plots and engaging characters to tell a compelling story. And there’s always a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Label Layering

Visitors should not have to read every label to learn about the topic of the exhibit. Instead, designers aim for “skimmability”, which allows visitors to explore in as much detail as they like and still leave feeling as if they learned something about the topic. Dr. Carliner summed it up this way, “An exhibit is not a book on a wall.

To promote “skimmability”, designers present information (labels) in three levels of depth: 

Gallery Introduction Labels: The largest in the exhibit, these labels provide the title of the gallery and an orienting quote. Visitors can easily identify them several feet away.

Theme Labels. These labels consist of a heading, no more than 12 lines of text, and, occasionally, a drawing or reproduced photograph. The text is large enough to be seen a few feet away.

Object Labels. The most numerous in the exhibition, these labels describe key characteristics of individual objects, but not every object has a label. The amount of text is the most among the three tiers of labels, but rarely longer than 12 lines. The font size is also the smallest of the three labels, requiring onlookers to stand up close to read it.

Most museums have very specific guidelines for text labels. For example, the National Park Service never uses fonts smaller than 24 points in their exhibits.

Wow Factor

Exhibit designers, and private collectors alike, are motivated by their genuine desire to share their passion for a subject with others. When a visitor emphatically says “WOW” when asked to describe their experience, the exhibit designers know they’ve done their job.

One way that designers accomplish this is through sensory experiences, like the simulated bombing at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.

Oklahoma City Memorial

(Right) Hear the official recording of an Oklahoma Water Resources Board meeting from April 19, 1995. The meeting, just across the street from the Murrah Building, starts at 9:00 a.m. A mere two minutes in to the recording, you will hear the sound of the bombing that changed us forever.

Such experiences are intended to engage senses other than sight alone. Some museums create a multi-sensory experience through music, lights, or the playing of environmental recorded sounds in the exhibit area.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

No matter how large or small the museum, more times than not, a team of people with different skills, roles, and responsibilities are needed to pull off a great exhibit. For example, Dr. Carliner identified three different roles within a core exhibit design team:  

  1. An idea generator, who develops the exhibit concept, chooses the content, and writes the storyline.
  2. An exhibit designer, who prepares the physical design of the exhibit, including its floor plan and graphic identity; chooses wall and floor coverings; designs display cases; and prepares blue prints.
  3. An idea implementer, who acts as a general contractor of sorts for the exhibit, securing objects for the exhibit that are not in the museum collection, overseeing the work of the peripheral team, ensuring conservation of items to be displayed, and making sure that the design is implemented according to plans.

The key takeaway, is that it’s important to have others to run your ideas past, to proofread your labels, and to give feedback on display ideas.

For a visual of what all of this looks like in action, check out this excellent five minute video tutorial produced by the Museums Australia Victoria, entitled Online Museum Training – Creating a Small Exhibition.


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