Designing an Exhibition: These 5 Tips Should Be Your Mantra

Exhibition making is a creative process and as such, there are thankfully no absolute rules as to what can make a project soar or slump. However, over the 10 years plus that I have been working in the field, there are some personal observations that I have made that I always like to keep in mind. The process of creating an exhibition is most often than not collaborative and involves many stakeholders with diverse agendas. Keeping a strong vision from A to Z is a challenge on every project and so here’s a short checklist that can help any team navigate some common pitfalls when it comes to creating exciting and engaging exhibitions.

1. Your exhibition is unique. Don’t copy others.
Although it’s great to begin a creative process with mood boards, a review of best practices, inspiring images and a list of “cool” up and coming technologies, its good to keep in mind that there is no better process than beginning a project with a clean slate. What is the unique story that THIS exhibition will tell? What kind of interactive experiences could allow the visitors to engage with the stories to be told? With today’s easy access to gazillions of inspiration images, it can be tempting – and timesaving – to cut and paste. It’s much harder to come up with the right content and the best stories than the right technology or the right means of display.

2. You can’t please everybody. It’s a fact.
It’s tempting to want to create an exhibition that is everything for everybody. We’ve come to realize that the most interesting projects are those that do more of one thing and less of another. An exhibition is a creative act, and focus and constraints gives it strength. Memorable exhibitions are those where the list of what is not shown is as important as what is shown. A good creative brief should include what the project will not be. Targeting specific audiences can also help give an editorial edge to an exhibition, and will not necessarily mean that other audiences will not enjoy it.

3. You’re creating an experience. Not a content grid.
Many exhibition projects begin with a strong curatorial input that translates into messages and exhibition zones via a content grid. All too often however, no room is left in the creative process to brainstorm on the exhibition’s content and experience with the design team – and many valuable ideas can come out of this forum as well. In certain cases, approaching content and messaging from a design perspective can also bring solutions to the table that are more playful or that use various senses or involve different learning approaches. All too often this process is not valued or budgeted and interesting opportunities are not given the light of day.

4. This is 2017. Physical and digital environments are a fact.
In more and more of our projects, we see a larger percentage of the production budget allocated to media. Traditional and interactive media can provide invaluable depth to exhibition subjects as well as opportunities for transmedia storytelling, thus expanding the exhibition into the spheres of the web or social media, augmenting audience outreach and creating potential new partnerships for a museum. A good creative brief should include strategic budget allocations from the get go.

5. Yes, there is such a thing as way too much content
We frequently embark on projects where the educational objectives are numerous. Many stories to tell, much information to deliver, but a limited amount of square feet. The more we try to fit all the content in, the less space we leave visitors to make up their own minds, to experiment with their own ideas, to dream, to escape, to formulate their own impressions and ideas. We live in a time where many online resources exist, relieving museums from the burden of being encyclopaedic. More and more visitors come to museums equipped with smart phones that allow them to Google any fact at any time. Does the exhibition really need to explain everything? What experiences can only be lived inside the museum space and should therefore be valued over others? What will create a memorable experience that will be resonate weeks after a visit in a visitor’s mind? Leaving some creative space in exhibitions is never a bad idea.

Read these 5 tips over and over again. During the design of your exhibition, take some distance and come back to them. An exhibition should be a learning space, and as such, it should inspire through its content and also the experience it offers.

About the Author

Geneviève Angio-Morneau is Creative Director and Head of Content at GSM Project