The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 53









List of papers







Creating a bit of magic: making museum exhibitions

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Museum Matters December 2010 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Museums Australia Inc NSW


Scene from Bagdad Cafe

In his book Designing Exhibitions, Giles Velarde begins “Exhibitions are, at best, magic and, at worst, dreary trudges around gloomy trade shows or museums.”

Fans of the film Bagdad Café will recall that it was a box of cheap magic tricks that helped the enigmatic Bavarian tourist Jasmin to transform the resident misfits of a remote diner in the wind-swept Mojave Desert. Not only did she humanise the residents, she made Bagdad Café the roaring stop-over for the thirsty drivers of passing rigs. In this issue, we look at exhibitions and their role in turning museums into Bagdad cafés.


Accumulated expertise is available in the books on our shelves, the recent Museums Australia national conference and other sources.

From the bookshelves

The latest version of the National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries, published in December 2010 on the Museums and Galleries Queensland site, promotes a general principle: “Objects on display are arranged to convey significant collection areas, themes, stories, [and] ideas.”

Museum Methods, Museum Australia’s publication for small museums and galleries (2002), is currently being reassessed with a view to a new edition. As a practical manual, it makes the point that exhibitions, as the most visible expression of a museum’s ambitions, must “excite and inform.”

Exhibitions: a Practical Guide for Small Museums, edited by Georgia Rouette and published by the Victorian Branch in 2007, not only updates practical considerations, it includes a series of templates for exhibition briefs, policies, project management, touring and other aspects of exhibition production. Importantly, it also has a chapter that amplifies design elements as they relate to layout, displays, lighting, colour, labels and text panels, and sound.

Two general publications on museum practice are worth dipping into. The Manual of Museum Planning, edited by Gail Dexter Lord and Barry Lord, published in 1991, has a section on exhibition planning processes. Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to Museum Practices, published 1984, draws attention to visitor psychology, communication, and evaluation, among other aspects. Giles Verlarde, in his section of the manual, says the type of museum usually drives design considerations. He distinguishes between object-oriented and narrative-oriented exhibitions. And, as if to dispel the notion that the curator is always the king pin in exhibition production, Douglas Bassett and David Prince, in their chapter, stress that “successful exhibition design is a team affair.”

Other titles offering useful advice have been relegated to the lower shelves because of the date of their publication. They include Designing Exhibitions by Giles Velarde, (the Design Council, 1988), Exhibition Planning and Design: a Guide for Exhibitors Designers and Contractors (Batsford, 1989), The Exhibition Handbook by Christopher Heath (MA Vic 1997), and Travelling Exhibitions: A Practical Handbook for Non-State Metropolitan Regional Galleries and Museums by Sara Kelly (NETS Victoria, 1994).

Imagineering: a Behind-the-Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real, by the Imagineers at Walt Disney (1996), underscores the fact that blood, sweat and tears are involved in transforming fantasy into something that will draw an audience.

The Victorian Branch’s latest publication is Exhibition Design for Galleries and Museums: an Insider’s View (2010). Edited by Georgia Rouette, it gathers up the views of twenty experts who consider design in a range museum types and situations.

Considering the audience

Michael Ostwald encourages curators and designers to take on board education strategies as a planning prerequisite when developing an exhibition. People learn in different ways, he reminds us. Museums must become sites for informal learning, a process that relies on the use of spaces, interactivity, and technology.

Anita Kocsis, Carolyn Barnes and Stephen Huxley say that exhibitions are, above all, an experience. “A focus on experience in a complete sense could create a common purpose in exhibition development, mediating between curatorial aims, design strategies and audience needs and preferences.”

Exhibitions in art museums

A number of writers focus on design in art museums. Jane Deeth suggests a discursive approach as a way of grabbing the attention of people who visit contemporary art exhibitions. Ted Snell considers the mission of university art museums within their context as centres of learning: they need to be thought provokers when engaging multiple communities. Alison Inglis reflects on the role of curators in balancing design and content, based on two case studies – the Salvador Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly series exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, both presented in 2009. Tony Ellwood’s chapter covers blockbusters.

Karen Quinlan gives a perspective on presenting exhibitions in regional galleries, which are subject to variable funding levels and other constraints, while Georgia Cribb considers the challenges of designing touring exhibitions for regional buildings which are characterised by an “idiosyncratic mix of architectural styles.”

Exhibitions in small museums

Euan McGilvray looks at exhibition design in underfunded community museums. While the majority of them “ collect historical material – in many cases vast amounts of it – they may not include a conscious effort to use design to enhance the experience of visitors.” Although many local historical societies and community museums use exhibition design as an organising principle, “exhibition design in the sense that it is understood in the museum industry is seldom applied.”

Given the conditions under which many community museums operate, he is cautious about attempting to shoehorn better standards and more inclined to accept the “glorious randomness” they offer. “Visitors are increasingly capable of dipping, skimming and flipping through a forest of content to glean some personal knowledge or insights, or just to have some fun.”

On the other hand, his recipe for improved design on a shoestring involves better interpretation, selecting fewer items and giving attention to the visitor experience as part of the process of preparing exhibitions.

Advice on design in small museums was also touched on at the recent Museums Australia national conference by Lisa Fletcher from the Museum of Samoa and Georgia Rouette. Fletcher, in her workshop DIY Design for Small Museums, urged participants to “think like a designer”. Rouette, in Pushing the Boundaries: Small Galleries and Museums Challenging the Status Quo, argued that small museums, without the bureaucratic, political and economic constraints that large museums encounter, have “opportunities to unleash creativity in all its potential and take risks with some astonishing outcomes.”

Other types of museums

Designing exhibitions in other types of museums are explored, in Exhibition Design for Museums and Galleries, by Donna Leslie (on Australian indigenous exhibitions), Padmini Sebastian (multiple narratives in immigration museums), Garrett Donnelly (multi-disciplinary collections in historic buildings), and Glenn Gresgusson and Gabrelle Tydd (natural history museums).

Dealing with issues

Carole Hammond zooms in on how to integrate environmental sustainability into museum production, while Bernice Murphy reflects on the thorny question of dealing with controversial content, based on her experiences over the Bill Henson saga in 2008, the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1995 and the seizing of Juan Davila’s Stupid as a Painter in 1982. “Museums have a complex task in negotiating their relationships with society…On the one hand, as public institutions, museums must sign up to the protocols and obligations that shape engagements in the public sphere. On the other hand, they have a responsibility to promote understanding of the complex languages and encoded nature of cultural objects and images and their often challenging content. If museums’ abilities to keep their programs diverse, challenging, informative and reflexive were jeopardised, the loss to imaginative and intellectual life would be severe. For these qualities are essential to the flourishing of all societies.”

On Museum Australia’s social media site, maNexus, Des Griffin recently posed the question: are social history exhibitions in our museums still collections of trophies without reference to their past? He had been prompted by Amanda Lohrey’s article “The Absent Heart” in the June 2010 issue of The Monthly. She had been critical of several social history exhibitions in major museums that left her with the impression that curators are more concerned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it.” She complained that too often objects are exhibited as trophies. “Until their displays of social history are more imaginatively conceived, our museums will remain lacklustre models of fragmentation and perfunctory exposition. There is a metaphorical heart missing from this frame, a manifest passion and flair, for the telling of our history.”

A number of people entered the fray. Sebastian Gurciullo was less concerned about “the fragmentariness of the exhibitions”, the lack of a single narrative. He was more concerned that too many exhibitions were inert: they seem to avoid any kind of controversy lest the political masters react in a hostile manner.

Gillian Savage urged us to consider real evidence about visitor experiences before we make too many assumptions. She was more concerned about the use of replicas for the real thing. “This is the problem of story-centred exhibition. Not enough authentic objects.” Regan Forrest questioned whether people were all that concerned about whether objects were real, an assertion supported by Christine Dauber: “in the digital age, where the democratisation of knowledge is running full force, the traditional style of exhibition with objects as its focus and the professional as the ‘expert’ providing instructive information will not engage the majority of audiences.”

For further exploration of these sentiments you might be tempted by Steven Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).


Exhibition Design for Galleries and Museums nibbles at the impact of technology on exhibitions in the digital age. Brian Looker compares the pros and cons of traditional and contemporary dioramas, mixed media displays, models and materials. “Different from traditional dioramas, the contemporary diorama is now just as popular and can be viewed as a display rather than a diorama.” From his experience “a good exhibit is not always the largest or the most expensive, but rather one that has been created with great imagination, allowing scope for adaption or change over time.” Georgia Rouette, in her chapter, considers convergent, immersive technology inspired by the 19th century static painted panorama. And Diane Lorenz anticipates the impact of the next wave of digitally-savvy museum-goers.

New expectations

This was a topic considered by Tim Rolfe at the MA2010 national conference, when he commented on the significant shift in audience expectations. “The goal posts have changed for museum exhibition design: visitors’ expectations are higher than at any other time in history. Few museum collection objects have the power to stand alone in a showcase with a simple label.”


For a deeper consideration of the impact of technology on the production and presentation of exhibitions, we turned to a recent report by the Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts, 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition ( Technology, it said, is offering more choices to museums in all parts of their operations. Rich media — images, videos, audio, augmented reality, and animations — are becoming increasingly valuable assets in digital interpretation. Digitisation and cataloguing projects are calling on a significant share of museum resources.

Increasingly, museum visitors and staff expect to be able to work, learn, study, and connect with their social networks in all places and at all times using whichever device they choose. The abundance of resources and relationships offered by open content repositories and social networks is challenging museums to revisit their role as educators.

From nearly 50 emerging technologies, the Horizon report selected 6 as the ones to watch and it gives specific consideration to their impact on interpretation and exhibitions, with examples of applications currently being used.

Mobile technology will take greater advantage of the devices people carry and will reduce overhead costs for services like audio tours.

Social media will continue to tap into the “endlessly expressive and creative” voice of the audience.

New augmented reality applications are poised to enter the mainstream; museums - traditionally places in which visitors can rarely touch the objects - will use augmented reality to create new forms of interaction with objects.

Location-based services – geotagging and geocaching – will enable museum to “pin” information to a given object or gallery location and have it pushed to a user once he or she has reached that location.

Although the full potential of gesture-based computing is several years away, this technology will enable museums to create a better understanding of the functions and aesthetics of objects – in much the same way as the iPad application Elements allows users to manipulate and “touch” chemical compounds, metals and radioactive substances in an engaging way.

And, finally, the Semantic Web not only promises to help us connect to digital objects that are currently invisible to current search algorithms, it has potential to improve the workflow and process of organising collections and exhibitions. “Implementing agreed-upon standards and applications that allow content to be discoverable via its context could potentially eliminate much duplication of effort in terms of data entry and back-and-forth communication that occurs as a result of institution-specific collections information records.”


The Horizon report pinpoints significant challenges overall. Far too few museums, it said, have a comprehensive strategy to ensure that they can keep pace with even the most proven technologies. Funding for technology projects is too often done outside operational budgets. Requirements for managing technology are not well understood.

Demands for business cases can create a “chicken versus egg” conundrum. Museum workflows are too often ill-suited to modern content production techniques in which content is created simultaneously for multiple delivery modes. At a time when their role is more important than ever, too many museum educators lack the training, resources or support to address the technological opportunities and challenges they face.

András Szántó, in The Arts Newspaper 2 December 2010, picked up these threads. He urged museums to “lose control.” Although they have made great strides in adapting to the digital age, they need to go much further. “With few exceptions, museums came late to the digital party. Until quite recently, most have used their websites as extended online brochures, limited to practical information and collection highlights.” Dramatic changes that have occurred during the past 18 months point to promising trends.

First, technology is changing the relationship between objects, curators and visitors. Improved collection searching is exemplified on the Victoria and Albert Museum website ( Multimedia experiments are reflected in the work of the Louvre Lab (

Second - and reinforcing a point of the Horizon report - much of this innovation is being spurred by an explosion in usage of mobile media, including the use of smart phones and tablets.

Third, museums are venturing beyond traditional curatorial material. Homepages are beginning to look like magazine sites, with channels for news and audience dialogue. Blogs, written by staff, routinely attract the most traffic on museum websites. New distribution platforms, such as ArtBabble (, are putting museums in the communications business.

Fourth, technology is revitalising museum education – as exemplified by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s multimedia scavenger hunt, “Ghost of a Chance”, in which players used text messages, email and the web to find hidden objects in the museum, and MoMA’s education portal.

Fifth, social media initiatives are blending education and marketing, as exemplified by the international web event in 2010 called Ask a Curator (askacurator. com) and the Guggenheim Museum’s creative video biennial, “YouTube Play”, a collaborative enterprise with YouTube, HP and Intel (

Last but not least, technology is transforming professional practice, as exemplified by the Museum Dashboard at Indianapolis Museum of Art at

Museums, he said, are feeling their way toward a digital future, but technological change hasn’t seeped yet all the way into museums’ innermost structures and attitudes. Digital innovation doesn’t just enable institutions to do old things in new ways. It forces fundamental and often painful realignments involving questions about what to sacrifice.

NSW members don’t need to go far to explore some of these developments. Just got to the Powerhouse Museum. See, for example, 2008/11/ which plays with a single photograph of a park and a bandstand to create a video story in much the same way as Ric Burns used a single photo to flesh out a story of a factory fire in his documentary film New York. Just as a painter can sometimes make a better picture with a simple triad than a full palette of colours, museums can make a great exhibition with few objects and little technology.


Exhibitions mean different things to different people. Those who present exhibitions in museums are called upon to become film producers, broadcasters, educators, entertainers and retailers.

In essence, and to borrow the words of the song at the end of Bagdad Café. “It’s all about magic, magic at the Bagdad Café.”

When Jasmin created her bit of magic, though, it was not so much the box of tricks that did the trick. It was the emotions she tapped into.

To create a bit of magic, we need to leave a lasting impression


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