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This article considers the changing role of exhibition design and its contribution to interpretation in the increasingly audience-centred museum environment. By examining the case of the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, this article considers the designers' creative role in framing the problem and connecting with the needs and desires of potential users to reshape both the institution of the museum and visitors' experience. This article concludes with a preliminary map of the key interpretive design considerations of concepts, contexts and narratives as a guide to the exhibition design process in contemporary museums, and for those who seek to bridge the gap between expert knowledge and public audiences. This creative interdisciplinary role for design in bridging the gap between growing expert knowledge and satisfying an increasing desire for democratic participation in its dissemination can be seen as an important cultural role for design and one worthy of further critical consideration.
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© BERG 2010
The Design Journal VOLUME 13, ISSUE 1
PP 77–98
The Design Journal DOI: ????????????
Exhibition Design:
Bridging the
Knowledge Gap
Alice Lake-Hammond
Freelance designer, UK and New Zealand
Noel Waite
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
ABSTRACT This article considers the
changing role of exhibition design and
its contribution to interpretation in the
increasingly audience-centred museum
environment. By examining the case of
the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa
Tongarewa, this article considers the
designers’ creative role in framing the
problem and connecting with the needs and
desires of potential users to reshape both
the institution of the museum and visitors’
experience. This article concludes with
a preliminary map of the key interpretive
design considerations of concepts,
contexts and narratives as a guide to the
exhibition design process in contemporary
museums, and for those who seek to bridge
The Design Journal78
Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
the gap between expert knowledge and public
This creative interdisciplinary role for design
in bridging the gap between growing expert
knowledge and satisfying an increasing desire for
democratic participation in its dissemination can
be seen as an important cultural role for design and
one worthy of further critical consideration.
KEYWORDS: exhibition design, interpretation, user-centred design,
museums, narrative
The 1851 Industrial Exhibition is a conventional starting
point for a design history that locates the origin of design
with the culmination of the Industrial Revolution and
the emergence of mass consumption. This display of the efflor-
escence of industrial production and imperial expansion was
spectacular, ephemeral and popular, and parallels have been drawn
to today’s shopping mall. Paxton’s inflation of the humble glasshouse
to a triumphant Crystal Palace and subversion of the natural with the
artificial changed the way people viewed commodities, and initiated
a vital international forum for the nationalist exhibition of industrial
and cultural production. However, Greenhalgh (1988) has also sug-
gested that it was a defining moment in terms of design criticism, and
the critical assessment of British design was that it lagged behind
its European counterparts.1 The resultant reorganization of design
education in terms of the South Kensington system sought to bridge
the gap between art, craft and industry. Central to this approach
was the development of a teaching collection for critical study, and
its physical legacy can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum
today. However, a less tangible result of these isolated collections
was a preoccupation with the form of artefacts at the expense of
interpretation of cultural context an issue that has troubled both
the fields of design and museology and their respective practitioners.
Given this relationship between museums and design history and
education, it is surprising how little attention has been devoted to
exhibition design. This can, in part, be attributed to the profession al-
ization of design throughout the twentieth century which, alongside
the positive definition and promotion of quality standards, has also
seen the segmentation and differentiation of the design field. As
the professions of industrial and graphic design sought to distance
themselves from their architectural parent and establish their
identity through professional organizations, they correspondingly
relinquished their architectonic role. Exhibition design, by contrast,
has been a catholic occupation, drawing on versatile innovators from
a range of traditional trades and media, artists, graphic, industrial
The Design Journal79
Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
and interior designers as well as architects. The diversity of skills and
their relevance to individual exhibitions combined with the complex
requirements of preservation and conservation have also meant
exhibition designers are accustomed to working in project-oriented
multi-disciplinary teams. In addition, their relationship with content
experts in the form of curators has tended to be more collegial and
collaborative than simply client-oriented as is the case with trade
shows. If the exhibition designers are employed within a particular
museum they are also more likely to have intimate knowledge of
their audience. All aspects of a particular exhibition communication
problem are ultimately addressed in terms of a physical gallery space,
and it is this common ground of curator, designer and audience that
demands a coordinated approach to planning, process and public
Changes in the field of museology2 have also provided greater
opportunities and responsibilities for exhibition designers. The
demand for the democratization of institutionalized knowledge in
response to charges of elitism has required a more sophisticated
approach to communication design that promotes a variety of
audience interactions3 and seeks to integrate intelligent information
design with specific cultural references at both the exhibition and
institutional level.4 The increasing technological complexity and cost
of exhibitions has led to the growing participation of designers in the
exhibition planning process. Lastly, political calls for increased visitor
numbers to justify public expenditure have required that greater
attention be given to the requirements of current and prospective
audiences. All these factors make exhibition design both a dynamic
field of design practice and a site worthy of further inquiry.
It is revealing that one of the most insightful articles about ex-
hib ition design was written not by a designer but a librarian. For
this librarian, whose job it was to collect, systematize and make
know ledge public, implicitly recognized the importance of design in
both the organization and communication of exhibitions, and, most
import antly, encouraging receptiveness to new ideas. Jim Traue’s
(2000) article in Design Issues, ‘Seducing the Eye: Exhibition Design
in France and Italy’, is written from the perspective of an experienced
head of a national research library, but ably demonstrates Herbert
Simon’s dictum that ‘Everyone designs who devises courses of action
aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ (1996). He
perceptively recognized the ability of exhibitions to democratize the
rare and precious holdings of New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull
Library which he was responsible for safeguarding. Having identified
a wicked problem in the exhibition of books (where the intellectual
content is concealed within the covers and there is little recourse
to what Greenblatt (1991) terms ‘wonder’5), his articulate essay is
carefully framed as a pilgrimage. This narrative strategy is calculated
to seduce the reader into accompanying the author to the heart of
the problem of a ‘minds-on’ exhibition, and to explore exhibition
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
design principles applied by international museums and provincial
boutique stores alike. Traue understood the designer’s mantra that
an exhibition is not a book with a singular linear narrative, but, more
importantly, that any exhibition still requires an engaged audience
who are willing to make sense of the patterns established by the
authors, be they curator, designers or store owners. Their common
goal is to entice people to explore and share in their discoveries – to
provide a cognitive map but not to predetermine the route.
Design + Museums
Although museum exhibitions have evolved considerably over the
last century, the value of design to the exhibition process has, until
recently, received little acknowledgement. Yves Mayrand describes
exhibition design as a relatively young profession (2002) in his chapter
on ‘The Role of the Exhibition Designer’ in The Manual of Museum
Exhibitions. While his contribution signals that the designer has now
secured a place in the museum exhibition process, the significance
of design practice and theory has remained largely unexamined in
both the museological and design literature.6 In response to this
lack of critical analysis, this article considers the changing role of
exhibition designers and design’s contribution to interpretation and
the entire exhibition process7 in the increasingly audience-centred
museum environment.
Museums have historically been regarded solely as institutions
of knowledge and storehouses for the preservation of cultural herit-
age.8 Collection objects and the availability of display space have
traditionally determined the exhibition layout, while design has been
limited to serving the needs of the collection curator and content
expert. However, over the latter half of the twentieth century, the
museum’s role as the exclusive keeper of knowledge has been
challenged in favour of a more audience-centred approach to
exhibiting. Passive custodial preservation of objects in museums has
given way to more active engagement with the peoples and living
cultures of which these objects are a part. New museum theory
is explicit about the museum’s role in decolonizing, giving those
represented control of their own cultural heritage’ (Marstine, 2005).
This is reflected in the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM)
evolving definition of a museum. In 1961 ICOM described a museum
as ‘any permanent institution which conserves and displays, for the
purpose of study, education and enjoyment, collections of objects of
cultural and scientific significance’ (International Council of Museums
(ICOM), 2009). By 1974 this definition was broadened to include a
greater acknowledgement of the museum’s role in society and its
duty to communicate with its audience:
A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the
service of society and its development, and open to the public,
which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and
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Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
exhibits, for the purpose of study, education and enjoyment,
material evidence of man and his environment.9 (International
Council of Museums (ICOM), 2009) [authors’ italics].
With minor additions in 2007, this definition still stands today.
The institution of the museum has thus become increasingly
open to diverse interpretations of knowledge and more involved in
shar ing these with a variety of public audiences. As Lisa Roberts
explains in From Knowledge to Narrative (1997), there is less focus
on the object and more emphasis on communicating meaningful
information to visitors: ‘Once a seemingly straightforward matter of
displaying collections, exhibition can now be viewed as an eminently
interpretive endeavour: not just the information exhibits present is
subject to multiple interpretations, but the very act of presentation is
fundamentally interpretive.’ An exhibition curator is still responsible
for the collection and research of the exhibition’s content, but
in creas ingly draws on the interpretive abilities of communication
designers to ensure that the exhibition audience can access, interact
with, and form their own interpretations of the exhibition’s message.
While developments in museum theory, policy and curatorial practice
have been subject to much critical analysis, correspondingly little
attention has been given to the significance of design, not simply in
terms of communication but as part of the wider creative research
process necessary to produce challenging new museum exhibitions.
Greater community awareness and involvement has also replaced
the traditional absolute reliance on institutional scholarship and there
is an accompanying ‘trend towards acknowledging that exhibitions
are particular interpretations rather than universal truths’ (Wallace,
1995). Where once the curator was the sole keeper of expert know-
ledge, the contemporary exhibition process has become a collab or-
ative effort involving curators, designers, educators, technicians and,
increasingly, the audience themselves. Exhibition design practice
has responded enthusiastically to this opportunity and has grown
throughout the 20th century. The evolution of the design discipline
from a focus on objects and symbols to more complex orders of
interactions and systems (Buchanan, 2001, 2005) has made it
eminently suitable for the complex communication problems faced
by contemporary museums. In practice, the designer’s role has
evolved from technical servant of the museum’s curatorial intentions
to active participation in all stages of the contemporary exhibition
process – from concept to construction.
Concept to Concrete in Aotearoa New Zealand
This paradigm shift is perhaps best exemplified by the design of
the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, where architects
and exhibition designers were instrumental in reshaping the concept
of New Zealand’s national museum. In ‘Te Papa: Reinventing the
Museum’, William Tramposch (1998) outlines the specific local need
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
for a new building to replace the inadequate National Museum which
was built in 1936 and the changing attitudes to, and under stand ings
of museums in the subsequent half-century. Just as New Zealand
embarked on a radical economic restructuring from a protected
social welfare state to a deregulated market economy in the mid-
1980s, a new national museum was proposed that would explore
national identity in a forum that owed more to the competing spect-
acle of international industrial exhibitions and shopping malls than
the taxonomic compartmentalization of the traditional museum
(Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2002).10 In Destination Culture: Tourism,
Museums and Heritage, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argued, ‘Having a
past, a history, a “folklore” of your own, and institutions to bolster
these claims, is fundamental to the politics of culture: the possession
of a national folklore, particularly as legitimated by a national museum
and troupe, is cited as a mark of being civilized.’ In New Zealand,
Tramposch explained, ‘the process of listening and responding to
national trends, to bicultural needs, and to a larger international
museum community’ (1998) shaped a remarkable process that
began by identifying the problem of why museum attendances were
After researching international best practice in museums and
related industries, a Project Development Board was established
in 1988 (see Figure 1). After consultation with Boston museum
planning firm E. Verner Johnson & Associates, the Board initiated
two parallel but independent design processes, involving an inter-
national architectural competition and the appointment of Ralph
Appelbaum Associates1 1 to develop an Exhibitions Concept
Plan (ECP). The architectural competition was premised on the
selection not of a design, but of an architect and design team who
possessed the conceptual ability to ‘express the bicultural nature of
the country, recognising the mana12 and significance of each of the
two mainstreams of tradition and cultural heritage and providing the
means for each to contribute effectively to a statement of the nation’s
identity’ (Anon., 1989). Of the 37 entrants in the first stage, only 5
of a possible 10 progressed through to the second round in 1990.
They were provided with a more substantial two-volume brief made
up of general information on the site and its context (Volume One)
and a 156-page volume of technical studies (Volume Two). Volume
One again stressed ‘the integration of Maori belief with the natural
environment and its spiritual significance’ (Museum of New Zealand
Project Office (MoNZPO), 1990) as a key architectural challenge.
While acknowledging biculturalism as a founding principle of New
Zealand, the expectation was plainly stated that ‘[t]he Museum of New
Zealand must satisfy the expectations of all New Zealanders that it
will in a recognisable way reflect our cultures – our collective memory
and future’ (Museum of New Zealand Project Office (MoNZPO),
1990). According to one of the assessors, those involving significant
international practitioners struggled with addressing this complex
local cultural context (Hunt, 1998).
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Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
New Zealand architectural firm JASMAX’s13 design was selected
as the winning concept. Judge John Hunt identified three distin-
guishing features of JASMAX’s design: 1. The Great Verandah or
Papa Watea, a space of mediation and encounter that separated
and connected the two parts of the museum; 2. The decision to give
architectural precedence to the tripartite institutional framework over
the fourfold curatorial division (see Figure 2); and 3. The assertive
relationship to the harbour and sea established by the siting of the
marae14 on a promontory (Hunt, 1998, p. 16). This was an intelligent,
and ultimately winning response to the complex brief which, given the
independent development of an exhibition plan, provided a flexible
matrix for the inevitable re-design with the availability of more clearly
Figure 1
The architecture and
exhibition planning,
competition and design
process of the new
Museum of New Zealand,
Te Papa.
Figure 2
The four curatorial
departments of Art,
Maori, Environment,
and History as set out in
Te Papa’s architectural
competition documentation
(Architect Selection
Competition: Stage 2
Documents and Volume
1 General Information
and Instructions; 01.1990
Museum of New Zealand
Te Papa Tongarewa).
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
defined internal exhibition parameters. Given the critical uncertainty
of a separately developed ECP, it is the second feature of JASMAX’s
design that proved significant in terms of how JASMAX framed the
problem of a new bicultural national museum that responded to
changes within museology.15 In How Designers Think, Bryan Lawson
(2006) provides a useful model of design problems that explains how
JASMAX reconciled the tensions of biculturalism, multiculturalism
and museological function within the brief.
Lawson (2006) discusses design problems in terms of ‘con-
straints’, by which he means ‘issues which must be taken into
account when forming the solution’. He identifies key generators
of internal constraints as designers, clients, users, and legislators,
and explains the importance of identifying key constraints in fram-
ing the design problem. He also makes an important distinction
between ‘radical’ and ‘practical’ constraints, where ‘[t]he radical
constraints are those that deal with the primary purpose of the
object or system being designed’. In terms of their winning design
for Te Papa (Figure 3), JASMAX adopted the institutional tripartite
division encompassing Tangata Whenua (those belonging to the
land by right of first discovery), Tangata Tiriti (those belonging to the
land by right of treaty) and Papatuanuku (the common land) as the
radical constraint, thereby embedding biculturalism in the design.
This involved relegating the fourfold curatorial division to a practical
constraint, in the knowledge it would be addressed by the ECP.16 It
can also be regarded as a strongly user-centred design that does
not give pre-eminence to the collection and preservation functions
of the museum at the expense of balanced bicultural representation
and visitor experience.
The ECP was approved three months after the appointment of
JASMAX and, according to Appelbaum, ‘[t]he result is a dynamic,
living institution. It will reach out to its audience . . . and encourage
Figure 3
New Zealand architectural
firm JASMAX’s winning
concept plan that
substituted a tripartite
cultural model (diagram by
Jasmax Design Director
Pete Bossley; Bossley,
1998a, p. 19).
The Design Journal85
Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
people to use museums in new and more varied ways than in the
traditional museums of the past’ (quoted in Anon., 1990). More
pragmatically, it resolved the translation of the four curatorial
collections into dedicated, shared (two departments) and integrated
exhibition spaces oriented around a central core or ihonui (Figure 4).
While this acknowledged the integrity of individual collections and
their differing curatorial requirements, it signalled a clear intention to
ensure exhibition experiences were holistic and not overly determined
by functional institutional compartments. Dialogue between the
curatorial departments was supported by the zones and areas of
adjacency, particularly between Maori and History to enable the
presentation of a bicultural Aotearoa New Zealand history. It also
provided a significant challenge to the architects, who had physically
separated the Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiritiri exhibition spaces,
providing a symbolic entry concourse and meeting place (Papa
Watea) as an architectural expression in their competition proposal.
JASMAX developed their design concept over the next two years
to accommodate the ECP and a strict Value Management Audit
imposed by the Government. The symbolic architectural gesture
of an outdoor meeting place was internalized into a wedge space
that ‘cleaved’ the building, both separating and drawing together
the two cultures. In place of the Papa Watea was a bisecting wall
symbolizing the concept of Papatuanuku and the nearby earthquake
fault line (Figure 5), which aligned with the initiating tripartite primary
Figure 4
The Exhibitions Concept
Plan (ECP) accommodated
the four curatorial
departments by means
of dedicated, shared
(two departments) and
integrated exhibition
spaces oriented around
a central core or ihonui
(Exhibitions Conceptual
Plan; circa 1990–1992;
Museum of New Zealand
Te Papa Tongarewa;
reproduced in Gorbey,
1998, p. 21).
The Design Journal86
Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
generator. The additional design generator of the ‘wedge’ enabled
the architects to resolve the internal and external constraints, which,
while it may have come at the expense of the symbolic status of
the building, provided a more radical platform for the museum’s
engagement with culture and national identity and the visitors who
continue to shape it.
The role of designers in the design of Te Papa, both externally
through architecture and internally through a culturally situated ex-
hib ition concept, reshaped both the institution of the museum and
visitors’ experience within it. By careful and considered framing
of the problem17 that took account of critical and theoretical
dev elop ments in museology,18 the design provided for a greater
level of audience engagement, and took account of professional
developments within the field of museology without being bound
by conventional practices. The results in its first year of operation
exceeded all expectations: 2 million visitors (from a population of
3.5 million), three times the numbers predicted. Criticism that the
architecture was not sufficiently iconic for a national museum and
that the display of art was compromised by its integration with the
other functions of the museum was valid,19 but we would argue
does not acknowledge the design innovations in the Aotearoa
New Zealand context that went some way towards addressing the
central issue of the relationship between museums and their diverse
audiences. Te Papa successfully addressed charges of institutional
irrelevance and the problem of declining visitor numbers and in so
doing redefined what a museum could be. While the degree to
which it achieved its bicultural mandate has been the subject of
intense debate, the designers’ explicit engagement with the specific
local context indicates a reflective design process that balanced
international best practice with local knowledge and understanding.
It also demonstrated the value of designers’ creative involvement in
Figure 5
With the introduction of the
ECP, JASMAX re-designed
its architectural concept
plan by the incorporation
of a new wedge space that
‘cleaved’ the building and
a bisecting wall (diagram
by Jasmax Design Director
Pete Bossley; Bossley,
1998b, p. 23).
The Design Journal87
Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
framing the problem and connecting with the needs and desires of
potential users.
Professionalism + Audience:
The key question is whether we’re building a functional,
cost effective museum whose form arises out of complex
briefed requirements, or whether the critical museological and
public functions have to be compromised so they fit into a
pre conceived exotic architectural shell. Invariably the latter
approach results in a deficient museum, and a disappointing
public experience. (Graeme Shadwell, Te Papa Project Director,
quoted in Anon., 1992)
The example of Te Papa demonstrates the key role of design in
con cept development and the determination of culturally situated
contextual settings for dynamic exhibition interpretation. This has
been made possible both by changes in the orientation of design
processes and the professionalization of exhibition design itself.
The choice of Ralph Appelbaum Associates to develop the Exhibi-
tions Concept Plan demonstrates the significance attached to the
com municative function of exhibitions, which, as Graeme Shadwell
suggested above, entailed a willingness to sacrifice powerful
architectural symbolism for an integrated working environment that
would be capable of adapting to the changing needs of its users. Or
as Appelbaum himself put it: ‘We have powerful stories to tell about
who we are and our physical world . . . I want people to talk about
issues and values, things you don’t get a chance to talk about when
you’ve been in fantasy-based leisure, such as a theme park or movie’
(quoted in Gladstone, 1997). Appelbaum’s commitment to people-
focused and narrative-driven museum exhibition design aligned with
the increasingly audience-centred, interpretive approach to museum
exhibitions that began to emerge in the mid-1970s. In this new
collaborative environment, Appelbaum suggests that museums have
become more multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, places ‘where
radical ideas can ferment alongside more traditional ones’ (1999).
Museums still collect, preserve and research cultural heritage but
increasingly place more emphasis on the translation, interpretation
and presentation of their collections and other intangible information
into diverse exhibition experiences.
The involvement of designers such as Appelbaum in reframing
the communication problem faced by museums both bridged the
perennial gap between preservation and access and redistributed
the load born by curators who had increasingly complex responsib-
ilities for their growing collections. An integrated interdisciplinary
approach to design that facilitates engagement with critical
museological discourse has contributed to exhibitions that respond
to critical institutional constraints of collections and conservation and
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
are conceived broadly in terms of purpose, presentation and people.
Exhibition design encompasses the traditional fields of graphic,
industrial and architectural design, and the more integrated fields of
interaction and organization design.20 Interaction design is particularly
significant to exhibition design in the way that it integrates visual
com munication and the design of material objects. It also highlights
the importance of information design as ‘we recognise that all
human activities are dependent on well-communicated information’
(Buchanan, 2005). Rather than being specialists, exhibition designers
must be proficient in a variety of design skills and able to apply
them appropriately in a given context. Design not only provides a
method of presentation, but offers a means of translating exhibition
information and organizing exhibition development that allows for
audience interaction. When applied in this way, design provides a
holistic vision that binds the exhibition process together, providing
the ‘intelligence, the thought or idea . . . that organises all levels
of production’ (Buchanan, 1989), from concept to construction,
and forming the communicative link between the content and its
audience. This creative intellectual role for design in bridging the gap
between growing expert knowledge and satisfying an increasing
desire for democratic participation in its dissemination can be seen
as an important cultural role for design that extends well beyond the
walls of the museum.
Bridging the Gap
Influenced by the increasing commercial imperatives and audience
expectations experienced in most developed societies, museum
exhibitions have evolved into more than just static object displays.
While the curator’s responsibility to the exhibition content and
choice of collection objects remains an integral part of the exhibition
process, the increased interpretive function of museums has resulted
in a more designerly approach to the presentation of exhibition
content. Assisted by the emergent discipline of design, exhibitions
have matured into diverse experiential narratives, formulated
and designed to attract and engage the audience’s attention. A
successful exhibition concept comes from a deep understanding of
the exhibition subject and the ability to convey this information in an
interesting and appropriate manner. The curator’s position as content
gatherer and custodian provides them with such knowledge, and the
exhibition designer works with the curator to interpret the exhibition
content and translate it into a dynamic and engaging exhibition
experience. Their responsibilities meet at the point of display.
According to Appelbaum, this requires the designer to ‘immerse
themselves in the curator’s knowledge of the subject and then,
with the curator test the ideas, develop narrative frameworks and
ultimately select colours and graphics and surfaces and materials’
(1999). In doing so the exhibition designer can actively participate
in all stages of the exhibition process and, although the curator
The Design Journal89
Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
and designer have separate responsibilities, it is their collaboration,
alongside other museum professionals, that is instrumental in the
development of successful exhibition programmes.21
In his book Designing Exhibitions, Giles Velarde suggests that the
designer’s position between the academic source of information and
the visitor is of immense value to the exhibition planning process.
He argues that the ‘primary interpretive role, as with language
interpreters, should be performed by someone who is fluent in
both technical and exhibition languages’ (2001). While the curator
retains an expert knowledge of the exhibition content, the exhibition
designer’s main concern is the relationship between this content and
its audience. This includes the clear and coherent communication
of the exhibition information and an awareness of how it will be
received and interpreted by the exhibition audience (Figure 6). The
interpretive role of the exhibition designer is responsible for bridg-
ing the knowledge gap between the curatorial information and the
exhibition audience, providing the vision, the technical skills and the
communicative understanding to attract and engage visitors in the
exhibition experience. This article concludes with a preliminary outline
of interpretive exhibition design within museums as a means of
encouraging productive dialogue between designers and curators to
Figure 6
A model of the exhibition design process, mapping interpretive design considerations and respective roles and
The Design Journal90
Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
achieve creative, audience-centred exhibitions that have conceptual
Interpretive Design Considerations
Three fundamental constituents of exhibition design have persev-
ered throughout the history of the museum: gallery space, collection
content and audience. These basic elements have evolved in
alignment with the museum’s increasing interpretive function and
the emergence of a more integrated design discipline. Although
space and content continue to guide exhibition development,
audi ence considerations have become increasingly influential in
con temp orary exhibition development (Miles et al, 1988), as they
have in the discipline of design in terms of user- or human-centred
design. There has been an increased emphasis on the collaborative
develop ment of strong exhibition concepts, contextual setting and
meaningful narratives, formulated to accommodate a variety of
diverse audience groups and connect visitors with the exhibition
information. This is where the interpretative role and communication
skills of the designer have become indispensable in the development
of engaging exhibition programmes. The exhibition designer is
directly responsible for the audience’s engagement and explores
the fundamental constituents of space, content and audience in
combination with the interpretive considerations of concept, context
and narrative to create increasingly dynamic and meaningful
exhibition experiences for all audience groups.
While historically, the exhibition display began with a collection of
objects, contemporary exhibition development begins with the
development of a strong conceptual plan. This is the ‘early stage
in which the idea and general layout are articulated as well as how
the design will meet the programme goals’ (Lord and Lord, 2002).
Ralph Appelbaum Associates’ (RAA) architectonic role in Te Papa’s
redevelopment demonstrates the value of a guiding design strategy
where the design of an initial concept plan shaped the museum’s
redevelopment. RAA’s interpretive design expertise enabled the
museum’s Concept Development Team to devise and document
a strong conceptual direction, which would reflect the nation’s
cultural diversity and accommodate future cultural developments
within its architectural space. The resulting Exhibitions Concept
Plan addressed the cultural complexities of the nation and provided
design solutions for communicating Aotearoa New Zealand’s
bicultural identity, while also allowing for increasing multicultural
diversity. In terms of individual exhibitions, there is considerable
scope for designers to engage with curators in concept development
to ensure a good fit between collection artefacts and available gallery
space and alignment with contextual and narrative development for
specifically identified and general audiences.
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Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
To communicate complex information effectively, conceptually driven
exhibitions must also provide strong contextual settings. In The
Design of Educational Exhibits, Miles et al (1988) explains that:
Even under ideal circumstances, the fact remains that objects,
by themselves, can communicate little beyond their own
existence. The lesson for the exhibit designer must be that
unless he wishes to restrict himself to an elite audience of
scholars who already know the background information, he
must present his objects in a coherent and informative context.
Through collaboration, the curator and designer can determine
the most dynamic interpretive context that bridges the gap between
expert and general knowledge, to enable the audience to apply
the concepts to the exhibition objects and establish meaningful
relationships between them and their own experience. From the
indiv idual exhibition designer’s perspective, one of the key con stitu-
ents of this interpretive context is the gallery space, which imposes
specific practical constraints and shapes issues of scale, orienta tion
and movement. A sound understanding of the limits and opport-
unities of a particular space can help match the context to the
curator’s concept. A big concept in a small space runs the risk of
being confusing and impenetrable, just as the opposite situation
could undermine the subtlety, and reduce the impact of a small-scale
By arranging objects and information in communicative contextual
settings the exhibition designer provides a framework for the col-
lection artefacts that will assist the visitor in learning about them,
and by extending this framework along a comprehensible storyline
the designer lends continuity to the whole exhibition (Dean, 1996). A
coherent exhibition narrative will therefore provide the audience with
the necessary structure to formulate meaning:
Human memory is best served by the exhibit that is built around
a strong and easily understood narrative. We think in terms of
stories, and while random facts . . . may be remembered, it is
generally true that isolated and poorly understood facts are
soon forgotten unless they can be related to other facts with
the help of some broad and unifying ideas. (Miles et al, 1988)
The application of a narrative structure to an exhibition design
allows the audience to make sense of the objects on display, in
relation to one another and their surrounding contexts. A strong
narrative enables the visitor to discover the exhibition’s complete
meaning, rather than viewing it as a series of separate entities.
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
Narrative structure does not need to be explicit or complex. In fact,
a subtle narrative tends to be more successful, allowing audiences
access to the exhibition message without distracting them with
excess information. As Mayrand explains, ‘[t]he exhibition designer’s
job is to reveal – not conceal – the content, to enhance and not to
overwhelm it, to create a stage for its performance’ (2002).
In the same way as a stage performance, a designed narrative
provides the audience with a set of visual clues with which to
uncover a reward. However, unlike traditional theatre, an exhibition
allows the audience to physically move through its narrative space.
The audience then is an active participant in the exhibition narrative.
The design does not directly tell the audience a story, but implies
that one exists, encouraging each individual visitor to interpret
the exhibition concept and develop their own understandings. It
is important that the designer recognizes that no two visitors will
engage in the narrative in the same way. As Roberts explains,
each visitor ‘will come away with an individually unique experience
and interpretation because every visitor is engaged in constructing
a narrative about what he or she sees’ (1997). The beauty of an
implicit narrative structure is its ability to reach a wide audience.
However, just as museums have moved away from a universal
master narrative, individual exhibitions often employ a weave
of narrative subplots, particularly if there is more than one entry
to a gallery and therefore circulation patterns within it. These
enable the audience to access discrete aspects of the entire
exhibition according to their personal interest and prior knowledge.
Depending on their significance, these can be utilized as nodes to
assist the audience to make connections between objects and
the larger ideas of the exhibition. The strategic placement of
key artefacts, interpretive panels, graphic and three-dimensional
elements, within the sight-lines of entrance-ways and probable
circulation routes all act as fingerposts for the audience’s journey.
This active participation encourages both immersion in the context
and interaction with the story, rather than passive looking.
[O]ur work is inspired by the process of explaining something
to ourselves that we don’t understand at first. We put ourselves
in the visitor’s shoes and use our own learning experience as
a kind of map for others to follow . . . Out of this experience we
can construct a narrative that’s not merely comprehensible but
engaging and inspiring. (Appelbaum, 1999)
Considerable attention has been devoted in the last decade to the
architectural reinvention of museums from elite cultural repositories
to active communicators and contributors to the cultural lives of
cities and nations. However, focus on the striking architectural
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Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
forms of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim or the adaptive re-use
of industrial obsolescence at London’s Tate Modern or Sydney’s
Powerhouse obscure an interior history of innovation and holistic,
collaborative design processes in the field of exhibition design. Te
Papa changed the way many people understand and experience
museums in Aotearoa New Zealand, and nowhere was this better
reflected than in the considerable debate it occasioned in the popular
press. It also received considerable critical attention in museological
literature. However, by examining Te Papa in terms of the design
problems it addressed, we would argue it offers a useful model
for interpretive exhibition design in contemporary museums. By
involving designers in a dialogue with the museum community and
treating exhibitions as communication problem spaces, there can
be a clearer articulation of the key issues to be addressed and their
relationship to specific national and broader international audiences.
The evolution of exhibition designers from display artists of the
curator’s treasures to product and interior designers and, with the
development of electronic media, to interaction designers and in-
formation architects has mirrored and even anticipated changes in
the nature of design itself. The attentiveness of museums to cultural
and scientific change as evidenced in their collections and identified
by their curators has provided a fertile studio for design innovation that
is worthy of further historical and critical attention within design and
museological literature and education. The increased participation
of exhibition designers in conceptual development, framing the
context of exhibitions and developing evocative narratives that
accommodate, and occasionally exceed the diverse expectations
of their growing audiences is a valuable example of culturally and
environ mentally responsive design. Contrary to some stereotypes,
designers, alongside the many other museum workers, have actively
responded to the challenges and opportunities posed by the demand
for interdisciplinary public knowledge and community participa tion.
Our preliminary map of interpretive exhibition design considerations
is offered as a guide to the exhibition design process in contemporary
museums, and for those who seek to bridge the gap between expert
knowledge and public audiences. In an information-saturated world,
there is a growing need for articulate communicators to help us
understand our past, integrate new knowledge and inspire new
ways of seeing our future, and we would argue that the field of
exhibition design is one place they can reliably be found.
1. ‘For this reason 1851 is often used as a starting point for the
history of design. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to
regard it as a starting point for the history of design criticism’
(Greenhalgh, 1988).
2. See Peter Vergo’s (1989) groundbreaking book The New
Museology and Janet Marstine’s New Museum Theory and
Practice: An Introduction (2005).
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Alice Lake-Hammond and Noel Waite
3. The accompanying dissolution of rigid boundaries between
natural history, social history, and science and technology
centres has also resulted in cross-fertilization of exhibition
4. See museum examples in Wurman and Bradford (1996)
Carbone Smolan Associates, pp. 142–147; Ralph Appelbaum,
pp. 150–161; Donovan Green, pp. 162–167.
5. ‘By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop
the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of
uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention’ (Greenblatt, 1991).
6. Notable exceptions are Dean (1994) and Belcher (1993).
7. The material for this article has been adapted from Lake-
Hammond (2006).
8. For a more nuanced Foucaultian analysis, see Bennett (1995,
2004). See also Hooper-Greenhill (1992) and Witcomb (2003).
9. For a more detailed timeline of ICOM’s evolving museum
definition see International Council of Museums (ICOM) (2009).
10. Te Papa has been the site of intense critical scrutiny for its
embrace of the principles of the new museology and its com mit-
ment to a founding principle of biculturalism. See Healy and
Witcomb (2006).
11. See Ralph Appelbaum Associates [internet]. Available
at: [accessed 28 February 2009].
See also Newseum [internet]. Available at: http://www.
aspx?item=raa&style=a [accessed 28 February 2009].
12. Mana is commonly used in New Zealand to refer to authority
and prestige and can be attributed to individuals, collectives
and inanimate objects.
13. See JASMAX’s web portfolio of Te Papa. Available at: http://
of_New_Zealand [accessed 28 February 2009]. See also French
(1998); the special February 1998 issue of Architecture New
Zealand, The Designing of Te Papa: Architecture New Zealand
Examines Te Papa’s Concepts Design Structure; Simeral
(1991) and Gaylene Preston’s remarkable 1999 fly-on-the-wall
documentary Getting to Our Place [film], New Zealand On Air.
14. The marae is a Maori communal meeting place that, at Te Papa,
was conceived by kaihautu Cliff Whiting as a ‘marae for all
people’ (French, 1998). See also ‘The Marae’. Museum of New
Zealand | Te Papa Tongarewa. [internet]. Available at: http://
aspx [accessed 28 February 2009].
15. The first and third were strong symbolic architectural re sp onses
to the bicultural demands of the brief, but the Papa Watea could
not be accommodated in the design phase that included the
final ECP.
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Exhibition Design: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
16. Figure 3 also shows the bicultural design generators of Maori
response to the landform and European settlement patterns.
See Darke (1978).
17. According to Lawson ‘“framing” . . . involves selectively viewing
the design situation in a particular way for a period or phase of
activity. This selective focus enables the design to handle the
massive complexity and the inevitable contradictions in design
by giving structure and direction to thinking while simultaneously
temporarily suspending some issues’ (2006).
18. Kylie Message (2006) argues that ‘the discourses of the new
museum-of access, democracy, the recognition of cultural
diversity-might break with the museum’s traditional project of
civic reform and succeed in offering an alternative and effective
framework of cultural production and engagement’ (p. 202). By
extension, the notion of the open museum gives those repres-
ented control and access to their own cultural heritage.
19. Art representation has since been addressed with the expansion
and redevelopment of the art galleries.
20. It also aligned with the development of a design discipline
‘con cerned with the conception and planning of all instances of
the artificial or human-made world: signs and images, physical
objects, activities and services, and systems and environments’
(Buchanan and Margolin, 1995, xiii), what Buchanan has
elsewhere termed the four orders of design (2001, 2005).
21. See ‘Design Dialogues’ section in Waite and Rasmussen (2006).
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Alice Lake-Hammond is a freelance designer working between the
UK and New Zealand. She is interested in design as interpretation and
communication across a broad spectrum of media, and continues
to work on a variety of projects including graphic design, publishing,
website design, advertising and branding, film and music video
production, event design, live video performance and exhibition
Dr Noel Waite is a Senior Lecturer in the Design Studies Department,
University of Otago, New Zealand, where he teaches design history
and theory. His research interests are design history, exhibition
design and print culture, and he also continues to practise as an
exhibition curator and designer.
Addresses for Correspondence
Alice Lake-Hammond, Foxhill R.D.1, Wakefield, Nelson | Whakatu
7095, New Zealand | Aotearoa.
Tel: + 44 (0)7940 431169
Dr Noel Waite, Department of Design Studies | Te Toki a Rata,
University of Otago | Te Whare Wänanga o Otägo, PO Box 56,
Dunedin | Ötepoti 9056, New Zealand | Aotearoa.
Tel: +64 3 479 7511
The authors would like to acknowledge the University of Otago
for providing a Postgraduate Publishing Bursary to support Alice
Lake-Hammond in writing this article based on her Masters thesis.
Thanks also to Pete Bossley and the anonymous reviewers for their
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Este estudo trata de exposições de fins educativos que tenham como objetivo oferecer uma reflexão sobre design. Para tanto, importa conceber a exposição como linguagem de projeto, o que torna oportuna a fundamentação teórica em design de exposição, alternativa na área do design gráfico-ambiental. As bases conceituais do trabalho compreendem a exposição como produto que constitui variável na percepção dos visitantes. O objetivo geral é compreender a intenção de organizadores e designers, com vistas à experiência significativa do público. A pesquisa é de caráter exploratório, para a qual lançamos mão de entrevistas semi-estruturadas com organizadores e designers. Os casos analisados, em três cidades do país, nos anos de 2010 e 2011, revelaram que, além de contribuir para a difusão do design, a exposição significa uma oportunidade de prática projetual em design gráfico-ambiental. Além disso, estes eventos constituem modos de refletir sobre os desafios do design e o papel do designer na contemporaneidade. // This study concerns educative exhibitions that aim to offer a reflection on design. Therefore the exhibition is conceived as a design type of project, which makes timely the theoretical foundations on exhibition design, an alternative in environmental-graphic design. The conceptual basis comprehends the exhibition as a product which is a variable in the visitors’ perception. The aim is to generate project criteria throughout the analysis in three studies regarding the actions of organizers and designers, considering the communication with the audience. The research is of exploratory kind, to which we lay hold of semi-structured interviews. The cases analyzed in three Brazilian cities during the years of 2010 and 2011 revealed that, besides its contribution to the diffusion of design, these events consist ways of reflecting about the challenges of design and the designer's role in contemporary society.