Top 10 Tips to Great Museum Exhibit Design

Image:  baboon™ | Flickr

Image: baboon™ | Flickr


When it’s a great experience, going to a museum can teach us, delight us and inspire us; however, a lot of effort goes into a museum exhibit design. As architects, we can learn a lot by understanding the ingredients that make such designs so successful. It’s not as simple as you might think.

A museum is constantly looking for different ways to attract visitors, but what happens once they get there? Often they suffer from three main problems — they can’t find a specific piece of information, they must leave too soon because they are bored or they stay a long time but miss key lessons from the main exhibits. (1)

Obviously, visitor accessibility and attention are paramount, but that’s not all it takes to design for a great museum experience.


The following are 10 ingredients for successful museum exhibit design:

  1. Motivate Visitors:
    Target an audience — the general public and/or specific communities (1)
  2. Focus Content:
    Filter content so visitors are not bombarded with information overload (1)
  3. Immersion:
    Engage visitors within a “story” (1)
  4. Modularity:
    Present smaller themes instead of one larger complex topic (1)
  5. Skimmability:
    Information should be easy to take in because visitors are often standing and/or have different levels of education (1)
  6. Patterns:
    Incorporate traffic/circulation patterns, exhibit sequence patterns and pre-existing framework patterns (architectural elements) (1)
  7. Capture Curiosity:
    Use storytelling techniques to engage visitors (1)
  8. Interaction:
    Give visitors a “fun” experience by tapping into their emotion (1)
  9. Integrate Technology:
    Technology should enhance visitor’s experience, not detract from it (1)
  10. Layer Content:
    Present information in a hierarchical manner (1)


The latter design secrets apply to more than just museum experiences. Each taps into some common problems that many other architectural building-types face. As an architect, you should “move” your occupants “physically, intellectually and emotionally”. (1)

By taking a closer look at museum exhibit design — you will see such designers are able to tap into the senses as they choreograph different elements like narrative and interaction to spark visitor curiosity. As architectural technology progresses toward more dynamic and interactive solutions, you will have even more ways to give your occupants a “complete” experience. The 10 tips listed above are a good place to start.

(1) Carliner, Saul. Modeling Information for Three-Dimensional Space: Lessons Learned from Museum Exhibit Design. Models, Processes, and Techniques of Information Design.

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  1. Joel says:

    I was once working with an aquarium client who said they couldn’t get visitors to read anything beyond a 4th grade level…

  2. Chris Mayer says:

    What a great top 10 list. If I were to add an 11th, it might be – 11. Plan for the future- Allow for changeability, upgrades, or revolving use space to bring in repeat visitors.

  3. Hi Chris — Great additions to the top 10 list…I agree with your additions. Nice thinking!

  4. viviana says:

    This helped me with my homework. Thank you so much! I got an A+ on my report. Thank you again.

  5. Vince Fried says:

    I am a professor teaching radiation protection. One of the lab projects I am “exploring” is to have the class separate into smaller groups, have each group contrive one or more displays representing time periods since Roentgen’s discovery in 1895. I like the list you presented, but if I had to shorten it – and the students will only propose displays, not actually make them – what criteria would be useful as a rubric to grade them? Thanks for any suggestions.

    • Maria Lorena Lehman says:

      Hi Vince,

      Sounds like a great project. You could use the list provided above to grade them — but since they are note actually building the exhibits, you could leave out numbers 6, 8 and 9. The rest of the list should serve as a good indicator for how well they know the topic because it will be demonstrated in how well they “convey” their exhibit using the remainder of the list above.

      Hope that helps!


  1. News says:

    [...] In my last post I wrote about thinking around what it takes to make a visitor experience out of a demonstration home built by Victoria University of Wellington students as part of the Solar Decathlon competition. It’s catalysed me to start thinking a bit more laterally about what a visitor experience is (or could be) and the generalities that can be gleaned. A lot of thought has gone into what makes an effective visitor experience. For instance, author on architecture and neuroscience Maria Lorena Lehman provides an insightful list of ten “must do’s” for museums creating visitor experiences. (See her whole article here.) [...]

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