“Design as Interpretation”: How visual communication can be both message and medium

Morris Museum Exhibition. Photo from Morris Museum website.

This post originally published on the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Blog on November 1, 2010.

This session provided an excellent crash course in creating cohesive and appropriate exhibition design. The principles discussed could be used in any type or scale of exhibition. With presenters from LHSA+DP, Morris Museum and New York Hall of Science this session also provided attendees with an extensive set of hand-outs covering the basics of design and a large list of resources.

The first exhibition design discussed was that of the Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata from the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. Designers utilized historic patterns, advertisements, photographs and typographies to convey the time period they were exhibiting. Instead of creating a full reproduction Victorian period room in one area of the exhibition, they pulled elements from this era and morphed them into a sleeker and more modern version. Including wall space, furnishings and even flooring style gives a room a definite feeling of time without becoming a focus of the exhibition itself.

Rocket Park Mini Gold Course. Photo from New York Hall of Science website.

The second example was the Rocket Park Mini-Golf course at the New York Hall of Science. Each hole of this course is based on actual rocket science and the look and feel of the exhibition was inspired by space-age graphics of the 1960’s. The course was intended to teach visitors the physics principles demonstrated during a complete space mission from blast-off to splash-down. The design team created collages of typography, colors and graphics to gain a feel for how the elements would work together.

Design recommendations:

  • Create an immersive environment in which to contextualize objects, convey a time period do not replicate it unless that is what the exhibition calls for.
  • Design should support and enhance the presentation and interpretation of the collection.
  • Build a clear and concise hierarchy for multiple levels of information.
  • Create distinct personalities for each exhibit area. (i.e. Victorian style carpet or curtains in a room meant to look like Victorian theatre or in an area meant to represent historic Paris, create a cobblestone-like walkway).
  • Make sure there is a large contrast in color scheme choices especially between type and background.
  • Include a visual hierarchy, make it obvious what visitors should look at first, second and third. Make all elements proportional while maintaining consistency.
  • Make sure the visual elements are constantly reinforcing the content of the exhibition.
  • Prototyping visuals and layout is never a bad idea. This can save a lot of money and effort later if things don’t work out.
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