Exhibition planning is an engaging process. Exhibitions are experiences; they provide communication of ideas, information, feelings and values. Although there is no set method for planning an exhibit, there are general guidelines that professionals follow.
Whether you are planning a small or large scale exhibit for a community organization, museum, archive or library, designing a virtual exhibit, or generally want to learn the exhibition planning process, this article will take you the exhibition development guidelines to help you transition your concepts to realities.
Before you begin:
Consider your target audience: who will visit and interact with it? Step into your visitor’s shoes and consider their perspective:
- Think about what subjects or themes your target audience would enjoy learning about.
- Think about why are they coming to visit your exhibition in person or online.
People visit exhibitions for several reasons: for information, for personal identity and reinforcement of personal values, for social interaction, and for entertainment and relaxation.
An excellent resource on exhibition development is by Kathleen McLean, Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions.
Want to know more? See: Resources
Exhibition Development Process
Remember that these phases of exhibition development are only guidelines that professionals use. Based on your institution or community group’s resources, alter the process as required for your own exhibition project.
Brainstorm all your exhibit ideas.
Feasibility: Determine the feasibility of your exhibit for your organization (cost, resources, etc).
Purpose Statement: Write a purpose statement to outline the exhibition’s function, goals, intended audience, general scope and emphasis (what the exhibit is supposed to do and for whom).
Assembling the Players:
Invite all individuals working on the exhibition together to discuss the preliminary design.
Communication Goals: Identity the unifying ideas that the exhibit will share with visitors, they are known as “take-home messages”.
Rough Schedule and Budget: Create a schedule (or timeline) working back from the exhibition launch date to current day. Establish phases to be completed by certain dates.
Outline the exhibition’s budget and keep track of costs as design continues.
Research/Front-end Evaluation: Begin researching. This will define the exhibit’s topic and the narratives that will be shared. Identify the available objects (artifacts or specimens) and other media needed to develop the exhibit. Review the museum or archive collection and make a list of available objects. Front end evaluation is a process that professionals use to determine the public’s existing knowledge, questions and concerns regarding the topic.
Storyline/Conceptual Design/Formative Evaluation: Begin writing the storyline, or script. This incorporates the basic concepts and take-home messages and develops themes for exhibit areas. It will eventually include objects, images, and components that relate to the themes and subthemes.
Design the conceptual design or layout of the exhibit area, or how the exhibit will appear online. Describe the look and feel of the exhibit.
Formative evaluation is a process that professionals use to analyze what visitors think of the exhibit as it takes form.
Script/Final Design/Formative Evaluation:
Combine everything into the final exhibit script. This will incorporate the exhibit text, artifacts and objects, images and interactive components. The final design goes hand in hand with the script. Many institutions use storyboards to visualize the exhibit experience and layout, or create visual walkthroughs from a visitor’s point of view.
This stage also offers a second opportunity for professionals to conduct a second formative evaluation.
Cost Estimating and Design Revisions: Finalize the exhibit costs for materials and labour, as the final script and design is complete. Re-evaluate if the exhibit is over budget, and remove certain elements or types of materials.
Final Production Schedule and Budget:
Establish the timeline and budget for construction and installation. Or if a virtual exhibit, the timeline and budget to launch the exhibit online following completion of script and design.
Construction and Specification Documents: Once the exhibit design is approved, create the design documentation (measurements, specifications, etc) for the exhibit construction (includes displays and exhibit labels). This will be used by museum staff or commercial exhibit fabricators when building the exhibit. Or if a virtual exhibit, this is known as the web architecture (how content is linked together and how to do execute the technical aspects online).
Fabrication and Installation:
This phase can be costly if the budget isn’t kept in check. Last minute changes may arise. A smooth and efficient installation is possible if the exhibit planning and design is carefully thought out.
Opening: Plan a reception or open house to promote the new exhibition. This will draw visitors to the institution or community group, provide an opportunity to fundraise and promote future events, and celebrate the completion of the project.
Maintenance: Conduct ongoing maintenance to keep the exhibition looking fresh over time.
Summative Evaluation: Professionals use this evaluation to examine visitor’s experiences and thoughts about the exhibit. This determines if the original exhibition goals have been met. It also identifies if certain designs are effective to be used again or altered.
Exhibit Redesign/Adjustments: Based on the summative evaluation, the exhibition may need adjustments in script or design.
Process Redesign/Adjustments: Known as the “post-mortem” of the exhibition development process, identify what worked, what difficulties arose, and how future exhibitions can be improved.