Week 13: Lessons in Museum Exhibition Design

“Museums as Contexts for Transformative Experiences and Identity Development” by Joanna K. Garner, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Pugh, 2016

According to Garner et al, a museum is not only a place for visitors to learn new information, but an “environment for visitors’ personal development,” an idea which frames the goal of an exhibit as “engagement aimed at enhancing the visitor’s self-concept and worldview” (341). They imagine the exhibit designer’s job as opening the visitor’s eyes to new ideas that invite them to see their everyday life, and themselves, differently. To that end, they encourage designers to develop content that continually shifts focus between the artifact (or exhibit content) and the visitor, leading the visitor’s mind to eventually consider the information and their own identity in relation to one another.

The authors also expand on work done by Kevin J. Pugh and colleagues that lays out a three-step approach to designing exhibits as transformative experiences that bridge the gap between institutional knowledge and everyday life:

  • frame content as a compelling idea with real-life applications
  • scaffold ways for visitors to understand real life through the lens of the content
  • have someone model the transformative experience so visitors can see what it might look like to internalize the information they’ve learned (344)
Garner et al, 2016

They go on to refer to work by Avi Kaplan and colleagues that lists principles for promoting identity exploration:

  • promote perceived self-relevance of the content for the visitor
  • trigger identity exploration by eliciting visitors to consider differences in their current understanding and the exhibit content
  • facilitate a sense of safety by creating a physically safe and verbally nonjudgmental environment
  • scaffold identity exploration by modeling self-reflection, role-playing, and questioning that provokes thought

“Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices” by Bruce Wyman, Scott Smith, Daniel Meyers, and Michael Godfrey, 2011

Though this article leans toward talking about successful approaches for employing new technology in museum exhibition design, it also has a lot to say about exhibit design in general. Writing in 2011, Wyman et al bring up changing expectations in the world of information delivery brought on by a multiplicity of information platforms, saying “the voice of the expert exists in a much louder world, information-wise” (462). With that in mind, they advocate for museum designers and information professionals to find ways to meet people where they are rather than waiting for them to enter the designated learning space that is the museum. They also say that the character of the storytelling used by museums has changed in recent years from a top-down, authoritative approach to “a multi-faceted experience that invites conversation and interaction with visitors” (462).

An early version of my project concept included an audio component demonstrating the sounds of animals that rely on the area’s native vegetation, but I decided against this idea because it seemed to add more complexity than it was worth, and I would be in charge of fixing it if it broke. This article confirms my decision — the authors mention that when visitors encounter an exhibit with malfunctioning or neglected technology, it makes the whole exhibit, information included, appear out of date. Another useful tip is to take more risks with the design of the experience, and checking often to make sure these risks are panning out during development. On a related note, they recommend beginning the physical production of the exhibit sooner rather than later. The earlier you learn about the setbacks or constraints you’re working with, the more you can integrate course corrections fluidly into the final design.


My project takes place at the intersection of anthropology, American studies, environmental studies, and art, and the way I plan to bring these ideas together is with a physical end product which is, in effect, a small-scale museum exhibition. These articles have helped me reconsider my approach to both the interpretive and physical components of my exhibit project by describing ways to draw in potential visitors and encourage reflective behaviors. These are important because the goal is for my project to be exhibited outside of a traditional museum context, so creating an engaging display is paramount.