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Museum Exhibition Design, Part IV

Museum Exhibition Design

Museum Exhibition Design, Part IV, Installation

“Museum Exhibition Design”, a six part series.  Each week, I am writing a post about exhibition design.  Last week was Part III,  “Exhibition Design – Fabrication”.  This week’s post will cover the phases of exhibition installation.

Anyone who thinks that exhibition design is the creation of drawings to is only 1/4 correct.  The process of exhibition design starts before drawing and continues through to opening day.  I have been part of more than forty museum exhibition installations, including, Mexico, USA, Canada, Indonesia and Hong Kong.  It is a stressful time, most people cannot read drawings and this will be the first time stakeholders will “see” the exhibition.  As soon as the first crate rolls into the building, people will be excited and the comments will start; “I thought it would be red”, “I thought it would be bigger”, try to keep you cool and delay reactions to comments until the exhibition is 80% installed.  Have a stakeholder preview scheduled and that will ease tensions.

Exhibition installation can become very expensive, often exhibition installers bill out at $85 per hour or more, plus over time (after eight hours)  and per diem.  Changes to exhibits are now the most expensive, make stockholders aware during the fabricator review at the shop, better to make changes at the shop instead of during installation.  My grandfather started out as a “window dresser”, creating window displays in New York City.  “Window Dressing” as with exhibits, it is the details that make the difference, “do the lights point in people’s eyes”, “Are there unwanted details visible”, “Does the exhibition read as a whole, convey the big message?”, “Are there typos?”, “How do people use the space”.  The last one “how do people use the space, is as much of an Art as a science, you can plan all you want, but people will always find new uses for spaces, test the space with a soft opening and watch people.  Invite the families of the fabricators to come use the space and watch people, you will learn a lot.

From the last post, you will have already:

Partnership – Developed a good working relationship with the fabricator / fabrication team (if being fabricated in house).

  • Contract with the fabricator – Only paid out in progress payments, holding back final payments until the completion of installation and completion of Punch List
  • Prototyping – Completed prototyping and evaluation of the prototypes, assembled in a written document
  • Permits, ADA, UL – Received all needed approvals for permits, ADA, fire department, and UL
  • Electrical, IT, Pneumatic Systems – Completed installation of all needed electrical, IT and pneumatic systems
  • Set Up – Have all the exhibits set up at the fabricators and request that the staff and families of the fabricator use the exhibits prior to shipping.  Either hire an evaluator or if your are familiar with evaluation evaluate the exhibits prior to them leaving the fabricator’s shop
  • Crating – Reviewed the crating prior to shipping

The more upfront work you do the better, your installer will be working 10 hour days, away from home the more prep you do the better the results

Roughly Museum Exhibition Installation can be divided into:

  1. Review at Fabrication Studio
  2. Confirm Electrical / IT / Pneumatic Systems
  3. Crating
  4. Shipping / Trucking
  5. Delivery / Load In
  6. Staging
  7. Prep, layout flooring protection, signage during installation, internal communication
  8. Installation of large casework
  9. Installation of small casework
  10. Finishing – laminate, paint, lighting
  11. Space Dust Free
  12. Graphic Installation
  13. A/V equipment installation
  14. Testing
  15. Test HVAC Systems
  16. Test Security Systems
  17. Aim Lighting
  18. Install Art / Artifacts
  19. Stakholder Walkthrough
  20. Press Walkthrough
  21. Punch List
  22. Installer, Fabricator and Family Party
  23. Soft Opening
  24. Public Opening
  25. Final Payment 30 Days after opening
  26. Evaluation

Lessons Learned:

1. Documents – Before the exhibits leave the fabricator, make sure you have reviewed the exhibition layout details and confirmed electrical and IT connections are in their proper places and ready for installation.

2. Load in and Staging – Work with the fabricator to detail which exhibits will be brought to the site first, how they will be loaded into the building and where they will be staged, prior to installation.  You may need to work after hours to not effect open galleries.  Confirm location of crate storage and modifications for next installation if a traveling exhibition.

3. Make Friends – Installers and the project manager will be a great resource six months after opening, make sure that you know their names and understand their day to day schedule during the installation.

4. Work Big to Small – People will immediately start commenting on details before items are installed, listen and remind people that first you install the large pieces, then the medium sized pieces then the small, then when all of the casework is installed you start with graphics, AV, interactive, and lastly artifacts and Artwork.  Link to post “Big to Small”

5. Build in flexibility –  It is much easier to have a review before bolting casework to the floor than after.  More than once I have been asked to move casework already bolted in place, now I place exhibit components, gather the decision makers and get a “nod of approval”.  During evaluation you may need to move exhibits due to evaluation feedback, always better to have exhibits built in a modular fashion.

6. Maintenance – Ask stupid questions, “how will we change the light bulb?”, “how do we clean the filters on the computers?”, often small details during installation make for difficult exhibit maintenance.

7. As Built Drawings – Make sure that “As built drawings” are included in the fabricator’s scope of work.  During installation often layout, equipments or specifications can change, make sure the changes are documented as part of the installation process.

8. Keys, On/Off & Maintenance Manual – Often I will specify key numbers as part of drawing packages (it is a pain walking around with a ring of keys, key cabinets to be keyed alike), all of the items such as key numbers, equipment warranty and “as built drawings” should be compelled in a notebook for review prior to shipping.

9. One Year Warranty – I will only work with fabricators who will warranty their work for one year.  Warranty should cover repairs do to defects, not abuse or misuse.  A kid getting under an exhibit with a swiss army knife and making his own repairs is NOT a warranty item (it happened at LSC).

10. Evaluation – I know it sounds like you finished, but now the exhibition needs to be evaluated to assure that there are not misconceptions and that you are communicating the content with the visitor.

Now the exhibition needs to be maintained to assure that you are communicating the content with the visitor.  I had a great suggestion for a additional post about maintenance the next post will cover “Museum Exhibition Maintenance”.  Then I will create a final post to tie together the entire process of museum exhibition design, including an executive summary and “check list”.

Links for specifics of exhibition design:

Traveling exhibitions design

Science Center exhibition design

Examples of each phase see “Museum Exhibition Design”

The steps of the exhibition design process is similar for Art Museums, Natural History Museums, Science Centers and Children’s Museums.  The differences are in the content development, the design process is the same.

The image at the top of the post is from the installation of the Dinosaur and Dinosaur “baby”  at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, I was the project manager of the dinosaur sculptures and the exhibition “Take Me There Egypt”.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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2 comments

  1. Another great post Mark!

  2. Thank you Sheryl! 

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