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.
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.