Museum Exhibit Design in a nutshell.
In 2014 I helped organize the first international summit of exhibition designers (Chaos at the Museum). The summit, hosted in London at Central Saint Martins, drew a diverse crowd of designers across continents predominantly from Europe and the United States, and while our experiences varied based on our cultural norms and governments’ relationship to museums, we all shared a similar dilemma: our families rarely understood exactly what we did for a living. Museum exhibition design is a relatively new field, and continuously evolving along with the advancement of technology (specifically audio visual and virtual reality), and the emergence of “selfie” museums that challenge what a museum is or should be in the twenty-first century.
Below is my best attempt at outlining Museum Exhibition Design in its current state, acknowledging that this is based on my experience and research while an Exhibit Design M.F.A. student at the University of California, Davis, and subsequent career as an exhibition designer based in Los Angeles, California.
What is Museum Exhibition Design?
Museum exhibition design is the practice of translating a story into a physical environment through art, artifacts, text, multimedia and interactives along with design elements such as spatial flow, color, light, texture, and sound. Odds are you’ve been to a museum and found yourself squinting at too small type or wishing there was somewhere to sit in the gallery. These are both examples of poor exhibition design. Good exhibition design, on the other hand, compliments the content of the exhibition so well it tends to go unnoticed. It elevates the objects on display, rather than competing with them.
Exhibition Designers on the Exhibition Team
Museum curators (sometimes referred to as “Exhibit Developers”) develop the narrative, identify the objects, and collect the research for the exhibition. Exhibit designers help translate all this information into physical space. Designers act as the channel between curators, fabricators, builders, and installers. Designers do things like create appropriate casework for objects, design labels that are appropriately lit and legible, and make sure that there is adequate space for visitors to flow through the gallery.
Exhibition Design Skills
A strong exhibition designer is multi-disciplinary, they understand 2-dimensional (graphic) and 3-dimensional (spatial) design. They have the technical skills to create architectural renderings of a space, and understand typography and type standards for museum graphics (yes, there are widely accepted standards). A good exhibition designer understands and incorporates the American with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design into their work. Most importantly, good exhibition designers take visitors on a journey through the gallery space and use design strategically to elevate the significance of the subject and create meaningful and lasting memories.
How to Become a Museum Exhibition Designer
As mentioned previously, the field of museum exhibition design is still young, with very few books written on the subject. University programs are still getting their legs. Most advanced degrees that specialize in the subject are Masters of Arts programs versus Masters of Fine Arts programs, and focus more on theory than application. At current, senior exhibition designers tend to have degrees in graphic design or architecture, or come from other fields such as trade show, television, film, or theme park design.
Why Exhibition Design is a Great Career
Being an exhibition designer in some ways is like never leaving school: you are continually learning about the subject of the exhibition you are working on. My favorite projects to work on are on subjects I know very little about. A strong designer has empathy for the end user. Coming into a project with little knowledge of the subject, I have an easier time advocating for the end user: museum visitors. Being a museum exhibition designer is awesome because your success is observable. I love to visit exhibitions I have worked on “incognito” as a museum visitor. I’ll listen in on visitor conversations, observe how folks are or are not engaging with interactives, and note what people are taking out their phones to document, and pulling their friends over to share.
Exhibition design takes creativity, an interdisciplinary mind, and a collaborative spirit. You will inevitably be told, “I love art!” when you tell people you design museum exhibitions, regardless of whether you work with art objects or dinosaur bones. As a new and evolving field, standards and systems will continue to make the discipline more efficient and effective.
How Exhibitions Differ as a Storytelling Medium.
Think of all the lines we wait in in the modern world: the line at the airport, the stoplight, the DMV, the coffee shop, the movie theater, most store checkouts… The list is endless. We’re told where to go, what direction to move and when it’s our turn. There are many structures like this, a progression that provides very little room, if any, for diversions. It often leaves us with very little power of choice. This can also occur in many storytelling mediums such as radio, podcasts, music, theater, books and film which all have a set direction or course. There’s a very specific chronology to the strategy of these mediums critical to their narratives and audience’s comprehension. Fast-forwarding and rewinding a podcast is confusing. You can’t raise your hand at the theater and request that the actors on stage jump ahead because you’re bored (although that would be awesome).
Museum exhibitions, on the other hand, are not limited to this script. While they tend to have an overarching narrative, and yes, some have a critical evolution that must be experienced in chronological order (think the U.S. National Holocaust Museum, where if you were a newbie to WWII and left unguided, the Holocaust would make no sense), many exhibitions are not restricted to this linear structure. Exhibitions are stories told through physical environments. As a visitor, you are invited to engage with the space at whatever pace you so choose. You can move clockwise through a gallery, counter-clockwise, or bop from one wall, to the center pedestal, and back out. You choose what you read, listen to, gaze upon. The experience and level of depth in which you engage is up to you. In essence, you possess autonomy, freedom of choice.
Most storytelling mediums offer very little audience autonomy. But you hold the reigns in an exhibition. You, the visitor, can sit and marvel at a sculpture for hours, pull out a sketch pad and practice your drawing, skip ahead of that young family with the stroller and crying baby. Through their own autonomy, exhibition goers become explorers, their curiosity the guide. This makes exhibitions special. As exhibition developers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to tell stories through narrative environments that empower visitors to be explorers, to question and seek out answers, to self-reflect and find connections, and to take control of their experience rather than mindlessly wait in line.
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