Lecture presented 2/12/03 as part of Intro to Museum Studies



Tonight, we'll investigate the who, what, why, how of exhibits:

(when and where not so important)

·        What are exhibits, anyway?

·        Why do museums make them?

·        Who makes them, and how?

·        How do they fit into the rest of the museum?

·        What makes a good one?





Museum exhibition is often described as a "medium."  But what does that mean?  Well, opening my dictionary I find the following definition:


·        "a specific type of artistic technique or means of expression as determined by the materials used or the creative methods involved"


In other words, exhibition is a form of communication.  We normally define that as one person talking to another.  But the root of the word is "common" - two minds sharing ideas, coming to hold the same ideas in common.


And because it's communication, we can think of an exhibit in terms of the old communications loop:

·        Encoding

·        Transmission

·        Decoding

·        Feedback


Encoding is coming up with the message.  That's what the Exhibit Developer does.  Now, the developer may have different titles in different institutions – curator, educator, interpreter, etc. – but it's all basically coming up with the message.  And this will be our focus tonight.


Transmitting, or putting the message into form, is the role of the Exhibit Designer.


Decoding, or receiving and understanding the message, is the job of the visitor.  And it is the job of everyone in the Museum to make the visitor's job as easy - and as successful - as possible.


Feedback is obtaining and listening to the visitors' response.  This is the responsibility of the Evaluator.


Then you take what you learn from feedback, incorporate it into your next encoding, and the cycle begins anew.


Now, what I just told you is wrong.  The division of labor is not nearly this clean-cut.  In fact, doing it this way is pretty much a recipe for disaster.  You can't develop an exhibit – at least, not a very good one – without input from visitors.  A designer cannot form the message without a thorough understanding of the content (from the Developer) and the intended audience (from the Evaluator).  And so on.  Everyone's go their fingers in everyone else's pies.


Some of the other dictionary definitions also apply to exhibits:


·        "a means of mass communication"


A permanent exhibit at a large museum may be seen by more than a million people a year, and run for more than 20 years.  Even exhibits at small institutions may be viewed by a significant portion of their intended audience.


·        "an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed or transferred"


An exhibit is the means through which the museum conveys its message and creates its affective impact.


·        "a surrounding environment in which something functions or thrives"


An exhibit is a stage set, where the objects and phenomena come alive and convey their messages.


Other definitions of "medium" also unintentionally describe some of the drawbacks of exhibition:


·        "an intervening substance through which something is transmitted"


All too often, the exhibit gets in the way of the message - either through ineptitude or through self-aggrandizement (which are really two sides of the same coin)


·        "an intermediate course of action"


WAY too often, exhibits play it safe - in terms of content, and in terms of presentation.


·        "a person thought to have the power to communicate with the spirits of the dead"


And that's the big complaint with museums - it's all just dead stuff behind glass.  Good exhibits can make the dead stuff come alive.  Bad exhibits simply emphasize its deadness.


Characteristics of the exhibit medium:


One of the hallmarks of Modern Art was its exploration of the fundamental features of each medium.  Painting, for instance, under the Cubists was no longer an attempt to recreate three-dimensional space.  Rather, it embraced, emphasized, and explored the limits of its own inherent two-dimensionality.


Exhibition has been a little late in coming around to this.  It is seen largely in utilitarian terms, which limits how far certain parameters can be pushed.  Nevertheless, good developers and designers always keep in mind the unique strengths and features of the exhibit medium, and attempt to use them to best advantage:


·        A three-dimensional space

·        Experienced physically and temporally

·        Broad audience (non-expert)

·        Self-guided

·        Multi-modal (different types of experiences)

·        Thematic (is "about" something)

·        "Educational"





There are almost as many reasons as there are practicioners.  Some of the major ones include:


·        To support mission

·        To show off collection

·        To present knowledge, or perhaps an argument

·        To educate, to impart specific information

·        To enlighten

·        To serve as a backdrop for programming

·        To be a clean, safe place, for visitors and for objects

·        To provide a visitor experience: comfortable, engaging, interesting

·        To meet the visitors' needs and expectations

·        To serve as a backdrop to visitors' social outings

·        To increase attendance and revenues

·        To increase profile and prestige

·        To advance the field

·        To inspire


The correct answer is: All of these, and probably more.  And the key challenge to creating an exhibit is balancing all these agendas and meeting all of these needs.





With so many different agendas, exhibits are horrendously complicated things.  It requires the cooperation of people with many different skill sets.


(An excellent summary can be found in Curator magazine, vol. 44, no. 1, January 2001, in the article "An Advocate for Everything: Exploring Exhibit Development Models" by Janet Kamien.)


The key roles in any exhibit process are:


·        Client: the person with final approval authority, and oversight responsibility.  In a small museum this is often the Director; in larger institutions it may be the Exhibits Department Chair. 

·        Content specialist: to provide information and ensure accuracy.  This is often a Curator. 

·        Interpreter: to take that information and translate it into a visitor-accessible series of messages.  This is the Developer, though sometimes the role is assigned to Education. 

·        Designers: to give those messages physical form.  This includes floor plan, case layout, graphic design, lighting design, etc.,

·        Project Manager: to keep the project running smoothly, manage the budget and the schedule, and to keep the rest of the museum involved as needed.


AND MORE!  In fact, it takes the entire museum:



AV, computers




Production, Mount Makers

Building Operations



PR / Marketing

Development / Membership


(On a big project in a big museum, you may have several people in each of these roles.  In a small museum and/or a small project, you may have one person filling several roles.)


So you need SPECIALISTS, who are also GENERALISTS, and can see all the different agendas and can work together – PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS – to achieve all the goals. 


So, if you learn only one thing this afternoon, let it be this: creating exhibits is not easy!  It's not something where just anyone can walk in off the street, slap a few objects in a case, and call it a day.  It takes a sensitivity to subtleties of the exhibit medium.  It takes an awareness of all the important, but sometimes conflicting, agendas.  And it takes all those specialties mentioned above. 


Just because anyone can buy a video camera does not mean that suddenly everyone is Alfred Hitchcock.  By the same token, just because anyone can hang a painting on the wall, or put a specimen in a case, and type up a label to go with it, does NOT mean that everyone can develop and design exhibits.  It requires a lot of different talents and skills.





Now, as I mentioned before, the roles are not as clear-cut as this implies.  Everyone on the core team gets involved in shaping content, and message, and design.  Maintaining that open atmosphere of sharing while still respecting all the players' realms of authority and responsibility is a very tricky balance.


There are two key issues – STRUCTURE and PROCESS – which influence each other.


Exhibit team structure basically boils down to: Who's in charge here?



This is the traditional approach: the Curator writes the script and picks the objects and hands it off to the Designer.  The Designer creates the plan and has it built.  When the exhibit opens, the Educator uses the space as given.

·        Pros: Each specialist is given free rein to do their thing; the others do not "meddle"

·        Cons: The specialists do not talk to each other.  They do not understand what the other is doing.  There is no chance for modification; a bad idea up front can't be fixed.  And there is no visitor input.


No one

This is the Team Approach.  The Curator, Designer, and Educator work together as equals.  This, or some version of it, is probably the most commonly used structure right now (at least on paper).

·        Pros: there's lots of interplay and feedback among the team members.  No one (in theory) dominates the process, leading to a more balanced exhibit

·        Cons: Nature abhors a vacuum, and when there is a vacuum in leadership, someone rises to fill it.  Sometimes you get lucky and a good leader emerges.  But all too often, the leader is simply the person with the biggest mouth, the biggest ego, the most tenure, the boss' ear.  Or, just as bad, no one rises to lead, the process flounders along, and you end up with an exhibit-by-committee.  Plus, there is still (usually) no audience advocate


Since every team has to have a leader, more and more museums are designing their structure to designate a leader from the get-go.



This is not as common as many other approaches.  It works much like the Curator-driven model (above), only with designer ascendant.  However, because design comes in the middle of the process (see below), this model tends to be less linear.

·        Pros: You end up with beautiful exhibits

·        Cons: You often end up with beautiful exhibits that no one can understand, because content messages, educational goals and visitor needs are often overlooked


Project manager

This is the "broker" model.  And to be honest, I have never worked in it.  I understand it is the rarest of all these models.  Basically, an Administrator empowered to take care of the nitty-gritty.

·        Pros: It frees the creative types to be creative, and not be crushed by the avalanche of mundane project-management details.

·        Cons: You basically have an accountant in charge, making decisions. 


Developer-driven model

This model is becoming more common.  Developer (sometimes an Educator) is a specialist in communicating through exhibit medium, and an audience advocate.

·        Pros: The person leading the exhibit project is an exhibits expert.  Also, their main concern is the audience –not content, design, or budget.

·        Cons: Requires a lot of good listening, bargaining, and compromising.  Also, with responsibility for everything, it can be very wearying.


All of these have worked, all have failed.  Depends largely on institution, and – perhaps most importantly – on the people filling the roles.  Once again: all exhibits have to fulfill a hundred different agendas.  How well they meet those goals will depend very strongly on how well the team and its leader listen to others' needs.


That's just structure.  The second issue is the exhibit PROCESS.  What are the steps?


Paul Maurer, Head of the Exhibits Division at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is fond of saying "Exhibits are not like widgets.  You don't just crank them out.  Each one is individually hand-crafted."


You establish a general process to make sure that everything gets done, and in the right order.  But it has to be loose in the particular details.  Some exhibits have a lot of objects; some have none.  On some projects the content specialist and the developer are the same person; on some they are different people; on some they are different people who don't get along.


So, every project will run slightly differently, depending on:

·        the INSTITUTION's goals and priorities

·        the NEEDS of exhibit

·        the INDIVIDUALS involved


However, in broad outlines, there are several phases to any exhibit project:


IDEA phase

          Is the proposed exhibit within the institution's mission?

          Is it viable?  Do we have the resources (time, staff, space, money, objects, expertise)


PRELIMINARY development and design phase

          Get a rough idea of the exhibit outline, content, and costs

          Front-end visitor evaluation

          There is usually an administrative review and approval to go forward here


DETAILED development and design phase

          Fleshing it out, working out the bugs, nailing down all the details.  Those details are different on every exhibit, so it becomes impossible to codify the steps.



          As it says



          Involves marketing, which must be involved several months in advance



People often overlook this, but it is very important.

          Punch list - details that didn't get finished or need to be fixed

          Summative visitor evaluation

          Remediation - improving the exhibit, based on the results of the summative evaluation





Far too often, we don't.  There is no single, widely-accepted definition of a successful exhibit.  As a friend of mine once said, excellence is like pornography – I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.


Why is that?


·        Complexity.  As I've said over and over, exhibits are complicated, so defining and agreeing on "success" is complicated too.

·        Agendas.  A big part of the reason exhibits are complicated is because they are trying to fulfill numerous, competing agendas, which sometimes are at odds with one another.  Thus, different people may have different definitions of success, which may contradict one another.

·        Individuality.  Remember what Paul Maurer said: each exhibit is unique.  It's tough to come up with a single definition of success that would apply to all these different exhibits.  And there is also the fear that, if a single standard were applied across the board, it result in exhibits with a cookie-cutter sameness.

·        Cover.  This is the dirty little secret of the exhibits profession.  Many people don't want success to be defined.  If there's no definition of success, then it's impossible to fail.  Also, if there is no definition of success, then I get to define it any way I want, on my own terms. It's a cushy set-up.


Nevertheless, there have been some attempts to define success, and excellence in exhibition.


AAM (American Association of Museums)


They published a "Standards for Museum Exhibition" which takes a strongly institutional POV.  Each professional specialty set standards for their own work, but there was little attempt to describe standards for the exhibit as a whole.  Furthermore, "success" was defined as the institution meeting its goals.  The visitors' goals and expectations are not addressed.


The areas covered include:


·        Audience: positive response, achieved exhibit's goals

·        Integrity of content

·        Communication clear and coherent

·        Appropriate design

·        Comfortable, safe and accessible


(The full set of standards can be found on the AAM website,




This NSF-funded project – the title stands for Talk to Your Peers about Excellence – does take the visitor POV.  It asks: did the exhibit allow for / enhance visitors to achieve their goals in the areas of:


·        Comfort

·        Engagement

·        Competence

·        Meaningful


There is no mention of institutional goals or of process at all.  (Which has caused a certain amount of controversy among people very invested in those things.


The project is not meant to "rate" exhibits, but to inspire critical thinking among exhibit practicioners.  You can learn more about this project at


Judy Rand's "Visitor Bill of Rights"


This puts the exhibit in the context of the entire museum visit, and addresses such issues as:


·        Comfort

·        Orientation

·        Welcome

·        Enjoyment

·        Socializing

·        Respect for Audience

·        Clear, accurate info; feedback

·        Learning styles

·        Choice & Control

·        Appropriate challenges

·        Leave revitalized


It too takes the visitor point of view, but is broader than TYPE.  While TYPE looks just at what the exhibit team has done, Rand considers the entire institution, weighing issues of entry sequence and amenities that are usually beyond the control of the exhibit team.  (To read the Bill in its entirely, see "The 227-Mile Museum" by Judy Rand, in Cuator, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan. 2001.)


NAME (the National Association for Museum Exhibition)


This is the subcommittee of AAM dedicated to exhibition.  In late 1999, they started work on a strategic plan that included addressing issues of Excellence in Exhibition.  The focus is very much on design and development, and is divided into process (behind-the-scenes) and product (visitor experience on the floor).



·        Audience / evaluation

·        Design -- visual / spatial issues

·        Development -- content issues

·        Business / management issues



·        Access                          

·        Meaning               

·        Affect


(To read more about this, see NAME's professional journal, the Exhibitionist, vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 2000, available through the NAME website



In the absence of widely-accepted standards, the most important thing is for professionals to talk - to come to an understanding or a vision for

          The project

          The institution



And, from there we broke into a slide show...

This page updated February 8, 2003

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