The Art of Museum Exhibit Design
Thanks to experts in interpretive design, museums have become centers of multimedia, experiential learning. Interpretive design is an immersive, tactile form of storytelling that fosters a deeper understanding of places, people, history, or nature. A well-designed exhibit goes far beyond the dry presentation of facts and figures to engage the viewer’s senses, stir the imagination, evoke emotions, and spark reflection and fresh thinking.
If your print shop wants to serve buyers of museum graphics, it’s important to understand how exhibits are designed and what role printed graphics play. In this article, you’ll find insights from creative directors that specialize in exhibit planning and interpretive design, and a print service provider (PSP) that has been producing museum graphics for more than 25 years.
Gallagher & Associates
Gallagher & Associates is a full-service interdisciplinary design studio with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Portland, Ore., and Singapore. They integrate interactive design and media with the physical environments of museums such as the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the Chicago Architecture Center, the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, and the Jamestown Settlement Museum in Williamsburg.
The company helps museum clients with master planning, budget planning, site surveys, finding an architect, content themes, and media production. The content team includes strategists, professionals who work with artifacts and images, and image researchers. The amount of assistance they provide depends on the capabilities of the museum’s own curators and staff.
When the International Spy Museum moved into a new 140,000-sq.-ft. building in Washington, D.C., Gallagher & Associates designed the overall experience, including the exhibitions, the lobby, a retail store, media content, and graphics. The updated museum helps visitors see how the role of espionage in our daily lives has evolved — particularly since the International Spy Museum first opened shortly after 9/11.
Liza Rao, studio director at the Washington, D.C., office of Gallagher & Associates, emphasizes how museum exhibition design really tries to appeal to all of the visitor’s senses.
“Because people can get so much information online these days, you really have to work to draw people to visit a museum,” Rao says. So, the media and sensory components of exhibit design contribute to the uniqueness of the experience.
As museum visitors watch a 360-degree film projection in a theater at the Yorktown Museum in Virginia, they feel ocean breezes and smell smoke as the cannons are fired. The seats also rumble as the cannons fire.
Museum experience designers sometimes work with building architects to shape the building’s interior design and construction. So, the budget for permanent museum exhibits typically isn’t as restricted as budgets for temporary exhibits used in brand marketing or retailing.
Still, the exhibit production budget must cover a lot more than graphics. Exhibit design and production includes the fabrication of custom display cases and fixtures as well as creation and production of content for audioscapes, projection mapping, and other visitor-friendly digital technologies.
Gallagher & Associates uses RFID technologies to personalize the museum experience for individual visitors. For example, when visitors check into the College Hall of Fame Museum in Atlanta, they can specify which college team they root for. This information is recorded on an RFID tag that the visitor can carry throughout the museum to receive content about that team on interactive displays. For example, on the three-story entry wall of 770 team helmets, visitors will see the helmets of their favorite team light up.
While graphics are important to the overall design of each exhibit, Gallagher & Associates relies on their contracted exhibit fabricator to subcontract the production of the graphics.
“We have enough experience with graphic and display materials that we can guide the fabricator in the right direction,” Rao says. “But the fabricator makes recommendations based on new materials and trends.”
Rao recalls when exhibit graphics consisted primarily of sign panels, and welcomes the ability to print directly on a wider range of substrates: “Now that we can have graphics printed directly on concrete or panels of wood. The graphics and text hierarchy can feel much more integrated into the entire museum experience.”
She also likes the beauty of dye-sublimated fabrics in SEG framing systems. SEG systems are great for freestanding walls, because grand-format prints don’t require seams like wallpapers do. Updated graphics can be inserted into the SEG frame during the 10-year life of an exhibit.
“We design permanent exhibits that have the potential to change content,” Rao explains. “Even in history museums, the interpretations of history are always changing.” Display cases are typically designed to enable curators to update the exhibit’s story with new artifacts and graphic panels.
Taylor Studios in Rantoul, Ill., has been designing and building museum exhibits for more than 27 years. The award-winning firm is known for its expertise in natural history exhibits at sites such as the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center, and Cleveland Metroparks West Creek Reservation Stewardship Center. But the company also builds interpretive exhibits for cultural history museums such as the Lincoln Heritage Museum, and the Gettysburg National Military Park as well as university museums such as the Museum of Texas Tech University and the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology.
Taylor Studios’ 65,000-sq.-ft. production facility is equipped to design, build, produce, and ship everything a museum site might require, including exhibit furniture, display cases and cabinets, props and models for scenic and themed dioramas and environments, mounted artifacts, life-cast figures and sculptures, lighting, and media and technology for interactive exhibits. They also create the content for the drawings, illustrations, and text for background murals, hanging banners, interpretive panels, and other types of signage needed to guide the visitor’s experience.
Taylor Studios subcontracts the graphics production to PSPs that can supply the extensive mix of rigid, flexible, and fabric graphics they might need to create a holistic learning environment within a given space.
Taylor Studio’s Creative Director Jason Cox says most of the exhibits they design are permanent — expected to last at least 10 years. And, interpretive designers aren’t just designing graphics.
“First and foremost, we’re helping museums create the story they want to tell,” Cox says. “We’re also building display cases, sculpting props, creating multimedia content, and selecting lighting that can help set the mood for an immersive experience.”
In addition to choosing the right materials and display systems to keep museum artifacts safe for long-term public exposure, museum exhibit fabricators must take a strategic approach to designing fixtures for evolving interactive technologies and display screens. In general, they are much more cautious about integrating emerging technologies than designers of attention-grabbing experiential brand activations.
“Part of a museum designer’s job is to match the right technology to the message,” Cox says. Museum personnel want bug-free, proven technologies that will last a long time and that they don’t have to think about.
Plus, while some museum visitors enjoy unique visual displays they can post on social media, others seek shared, hands-on curiosity-stimulating experiences that encourage them to look away from their smartphones for a while.
While Cox and other designers are familiar with many types of exhibit materials and CNC fabrication techniques, they rely on PSPs to recommend the correct graphic materials for both the lighting conditions and long-term durability requirements of each exhibit. PSPs should also be able to deliver ready-to-hang prints, arrange for the installation of wall murals and floor graphics, and offer finishing services such as painting the exposed edges of contour-cut graphics on MDF or wood.
Taylor Studios uses CNC milling equipment to sculpt many of the props used in many of their designs. But they have tried using 3D printing for smaller items, such as a series of birds in different poses that were placed high up on a large rock cliff.
“We like to keep our options open to the requirements of each job and situation by utilizing many fabrication methods and techniques,” Cox says.
As an exhibit fabricator, Taylor Studios focuses primarily on the permanent exhibits that will shape how visitors experience a museum. Designing immersive, long-lasting exhibits for installation within a museum building requires meeting an entirely different set of design criteria than creating easy-to-ship, easy-to-set-up displays for traveling exhibits or pop-up museums.
The PhotoWorksGroup in Charlottesville, Va., started as a commercial photo lab in 1986 and has steadily evolved to add new visual communications capabilities such as large-format images, exhibits, displays, and signs.
In the early years, many museum clients wanted printed images face-mounted to Plexiglass. Today, museum designers want a wide range of graphics, images, and signs for many different types of permanent and traveling exhibits.
Geoff Kilmer, CEO of PhotoWorksGroup, confirms that many museum designers request direct-to-substrate printing, both first and second surface: “Large graphics are often tiled to create a single graphic much bigger than the printer bed. Sometimes, the rigid graphics are printed in irregular shapes and fit together like a puzzle.”
PhotoWorksGroup also sees a growing demand for laser-cut acrylic letters as well as the old standby — contour cut vinyl letters.
Demand for dye-sublimation fabric printing has also grown, says Kilmer, particularly for traveling exhibits that require lightweight, easy-to-set-up graphics.
“Dye-sublimation fabric graphics offer durability not found with other types of graphics,” Kilmer says. The graphics can be cleaned in a washing machine, air-dried, and reinstalled into the display frame.
“Permanent exhibits use a wide variety of materials, surfaces, and textures. They also frequently incorporate LED lighting,” Kilmer notes. “So, it’s not enough to simply output graphics anymore. We are often tasked to produce three-dimensional logos, specially lit graphics, or custom-milled metal pieces.” PhotoWorksGroup also offers waterjet cutting of substrates, and CNC routing of two- and three-dimensional displays.
He believes this finishing versatility and a staff that combines technical expertise with a love for the arts helps PhotoWorksGroup connect with museum clients. “Our skilled technicians, finishing services, and large-format graphic outputs, enable us to serve as a valued partner for exhibition and environmental graphic designers of all kinds.”