Inside every museum exhibit is a story. Actually, it’s a story of stories swirling together; sometimes we don’t understand what grand story they come together to make until we see a museum exhibit that brings them to life.
At Exhibits Northwest, we believe that the best museum exhibit display starts with a great museum exhibit design. Every exhibit has its own ocean of stories to tell; coaxing the perfect balance of education, intrigue, and accuracy is the goal of a great museum exhibit design.
The first rule of marketing – and every museum exhibit design is a piece of marketing, make no mistake – is to know your customer. Who do we expect to enjoy learning about this more, Little Johnny or his grandpa? Once we know who we’re telling our story to, it’s time to jump in and construct the experience.
How to Design a Museum Exhibit
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the design process, here are a few tips to keep in mind that will help you design an effective and engaging museum exhibit.
Engage Your Audience: Maybe the purpose of your exhibit is informational, but no one will absorb or remember the information if it’s presented in a boring, one-dimensional manner. Think about how you can make the exhibit interactive and engaging for your target audience.
Go Digital: Consider how you can incorporate video or other digital elements into the exhibit to help engage your audience, especially if your target visitors are of a younger generation. Could an interactive touch screen, digital map, mobile app, or video clip help you tell the exhibit’s story in a more engaging way?
Be Unique: While it’s important to do your research and see what else is out there, simply copying another exhibit won’t get you very far. Innovation is crucial; the more you can stand out and attract attention, the better.
Think About Accessibility: When you design a museum exhibit, it’s important to consider how people of a range of abilities will be able to interact with the exhibit space and the information displayed. For example, is the exhibit wheelchair accessible? If you need guidance on this topic, the ADA National Network has some great resources.
Keep it Simple: Don’t overwhelm your visitors with too much content or text. Wherever possible, consider using clear graphics in place of text to help create visual cues, focal points, and a natural flow. If there’s too much content to fit into one exhibit, think about how you can divide it up into smaller sections or multiple exhibits.
These are just a few important things to keep in mind during the museum exhibit design process – in the sections below, we’ll delve more deeply into the importance of knowing your audience and crafting a captivating story to pique their interest.
Museum Exhibit Design Process
In a nutshell, the typical phases of museum exhibit design are as follows:
Planning: During this phase, you should clearly define who the viewer/visitor is and what they are hoping to gain from the viewing experience. You should also think about the exhibit in the context of the overall museum and consider how it will fit in and flow with the other exhibitions. You’ll also have to plan out the physical space of the exhibit, the materials to be used, the description, the needs (staffing, graphic design, etc.) It’s important to come up with a clear budget during this phase as well.
Design: Next comes the design phase, during which you’ll start building out the story of the exhibit and dividing it into sections. It’s a good idea to do research during this phase and compare what you’re doing with similar exhibits at other museums. The design process typically starts out with conceptual design and moves into schematic design before it is developed and finalized.
Fabrication/Construction: During this phase, you will likely work with project partners, whether they be graphic designers, artists, fabricators, etc. You will need to establish these contracts, source any materials or equipment needed, and get to work building out each element of the exhibit.
Installation: This part of the process is, of course, where everything gets assembled and finalized so that they are ready for viewers to enjoy. Before opening the exhibit, you will want to make sure that you complete thorough testing to ensure safety and functionality. Usually, there will be a soft opening before the formal opening of the exhibit.
Maintenance: Last but not least, maintenance is important in order to ensure that the exhibit continues to function and serve its purpose. Some exhibits require much more maintenance than others so it’s important to think ahead and consider this during the planning and design stages as well.
Exhibit design is complicated and involves coordinating many moving parts. If this process seems overwhelming, you may want to consider partnering with an experienced exhibit designer, who will help ensure things go according to plan.
Know Your Customer and Speak Directly to Them
Of course, every exhibit is for everyone. But some demographics are going to get interested faster and more deeply than others. The point is to reach them and let them reach everyone else. A great museum exhibit design is able to wow the people it was made for – so much so that they can’t help telling their friends about it.
So how do we learn about our target demographics? Through market research. It may be (it often is) worth the investment to hire an outside marketing agency to gain access to data about your target customers. Some useful introductory questions include the following:
- What age group are we targeting?
- If they don’t come to see this exhibit, what will they probably spend their time doing instead?
- What media do they engage with the most?
- What are they hoping to gain from visiting the exhibit?
With the answers to these questions guiding you, you’ll be on the right track to designing a captivating exhibit.
Tell Your Story with Engaging Museum Exhibit Design
Again, of course, the book is always better than the movie. But do you know why some people prefer movies anyway? It’s because to whatever extent, they bring a gray page of black words to life. A great museum exhibit design takes things one step further and immerses patrons inside of a story; instead of spectating, now they’re participating.
This is one area where really talented marketers can shine. A really talented marketer, first of all, listens. Whoever you hire or sit down with to help tell your story, will have to start by learning that story. Over time, you will become confident that they understand your vision and that their contributions enhance it rather than replace it – or you’ll become confident of the opposite. If the latter is the case, there are plenty of other companies in the industry to move on to.
Once you and your marketer are on the same page of the storybook, it’s time to plan how the story will be told. Of course, the text will play a part, but people will fatigue if they have to read too much. How should the context of the story be conveyed? What technologies should be implemented? All these questions – and many more –are for answering in collaboration with a company that understands how to tell a compelling story using pictures, words, installations, and all manner of other media.
Learn About Virtual Exhibits
Virtual Museum Exhibit Design
In keeping up with the digital era, many museums are turning to digital and virtual museum exhibits in order to reach wider audiences. Virtual museum exhibits can expand your reach and offer a chance to connect on a more global level. They also offer incredible opportunities for interaction and engagement.
But what might a virtual exhibit look like? It could be a completely virtual rendering, a virtual reality experience, or a virtual tour of an existing museum exhibit. When you go digital, the possibilities are truly endless! Of course, designing a virtual exhibit will likely require a different set of skills and contractors, such as digital architects, videographers, and more.
What to Look for in Museum Exhibit Design Firms
Museum exhibit designers are jacks of all trades. They must have a solid understanding of marketing, storytelling, design, graphic design, accessibility, construction, lighting, and more. Depending on what kind of museum they’re working with, they may also need a background in art or history. And if the exhibit has any virtual components, there are even more skills required.
When looking for the right person to hire, you should definitely ask to see examples of their past work. Hopefully, you’ll be wowed and inspired by their ability to bring a story to life.
Fun Is Imperative for a Great Experience!
We’re talking about a museum exhibit design that people will enjoy experiencing, aren’t we? How can you expect them to lose themselves in your story if you wish you didn’t have to tell it? This whole exercise will be a waste if the person or team at the museum doesn’t like talking about the story of the exhibit.
Of course, it’s important to know your audience and make sure you’re telling the story to the right people – that’s where data and research come in. But once your love for the subject lines up with your target market, it’s time to dig in and make something amazing!