Making Material Matter: The Importance of Museum Decor and Design

Posted on Sep 29, 2021 3:27:03 PM

By Robert Letts, Founder, Letts Design

I came to MediaMerge through a former coworker and colleague in the local museum industry. We had worked together on a Paleontology exhibit at a local museum that MediaMerge had also worked on. At the time, MediaMerge was hunting down a scenic designer to assist them with some integration challenges on a project they had in the works. Seamlessly blending scenic with technology is always a challenge in balancing the amount of content with the delivery in a scenic environment.

One such instance of this was a museum experience I vividly remember at the Chicago Field Museum. I was in my twenties, and lucky enough to see both SUE the T. rex and the Star Wars: The Magic of Myth traveling exhibit at the same time.

Now, as far as awesome goes, a twenty-something-year-old nerd like me can’t beat dinosaurs and Star Wars, but the reason that those memories still stay with me to this day has more to do with their design presentation than the actual subject matter.

The actual presentation of Sue was about leveraging the enormity of the specimen in the main lobby. The first thing you see are these tall Inuit Totems and beyond those are large Bull African elephants and then at the very end of the hall was Sue towering over it all. They could have put the bones in cases, but the designers chose to pose Sue in all her 13-feet-tall-40-feet-long terrifying glory and in a way that let researchers remove portions to study. At the time this was being done, other sections still in-situ were being prepared and you could see the technicians at work. Even more incredible was seeing the skull of Sue mounted separately as it weighed far too much to actually mount. The entire experience was about creating a sense of awe that pulled the visitor in closer. 

In Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, the experience was allowing the visitor to not only see up close the costumes, models and concept art but to understand what drove the filmmakers and concept artists’ design choices. These were displayed in a traditional manner but in a way that mattered in the correct context.  

In both exhibits, the Design choices and how designers chose to showcase the work and content matter. It’s the connective tissue between the content and the visitor, and they're the reason I have the same drive to design in the first place. They're also the reason I love working with MediaMerge, a company that uses technology to maximize the potential of the message, to connect the guest to the experience.

What is design, anyway?

First, let’s define the difference between decor and design. Decor is a ‘surface-level’ piece of visual interest and may not compel you to ask questions. I would compare it to window dressing in a store; something used more for piquing interest to draw a viewer in, rather than showing off any real depth.

Design, on the other hand, is more substantial. Design is the delivery method for content through use of materials, substrates, texture, thought for accessibility, interactivity, traffic flow, visual impact in low lighting levels, and so much more to connect an exhibit’s material and meaning to an audience. Decor slapped on top of some generic information will not lead to a lasting impact. It is essential to use the power of design to create experiences that actively engage the audience with the subject matter to create life-long, inquisitive, learners. Otherwise, the information or message won’t travel out the door with them when they leave.

Good vs bad design

For me, there is one word that defines an ineffective design concept in a museum exhibit: obvious.

I’ve come to call this the “glass case syndrome,” and it’s what a lot of people think of when they picture a cliche scene in a museum. The most common example would be a suit of armor (or some other artifact) locked inside a glass case with a little plaque beside it listing off a few paragraphs of information.

It’s difficult to get excited about something like that, even if the artifact and the information are actually very interesting. It’s just tough to feel connected to an exhibit when its overall design screams, “Don’t touch anything! Stay away!”

Most of us have seen exhibits designed this way at one time or another, and I’d bet most people don't remember much information from those plaques. There’s nothing that engages the viewer with the information. There’s nothing that helps them experience the content. It is easily intuitive and therefore forgettable.

Our approach to design does not rely on information alone. We always seek to create a connection between the Information, the Experience, and the Visitor. 

The design process

Creating excitement and engagement is at the forefront of my mind when I design for a museum. The secret to engaging design is to turn basic design on its head. Audiences seek novelty. They are charmed by surprise. They are entertained by the unexpected. 

For example, I created an exhibit for McWane Science Center in Birmingham that dealt with the field of animation.

A zoetrope is an early form of animation technology using a strip of images placed inside of a cylinder that creates the illusion of movement when spun and viewed through slits from the exterior. You’ve probably seen one in a film, or maybe used one.


Now, this exhibit could have just been a zoetrope for kids to look at, with a bit of information on plaques next to the display. I realized to make the exhibit work, we had to combine Information, Experience and the Visitor, so we designed a process where the kids could make their own animations.

In our exhibit, the children would draw their own animation panels to put into a zoetrope, thereby learning the process – the spacing of the drawings, the concept of altering the drawings to imply motion from image to image.

Which do you think a kid will remember? A static example of a random drawing being animated, or the personal experience of seeing their drawing come to life right in front of them? 

I’d be willing to bet that any child who creates his own animation will really connect to the process and will walk away with a deeper appreciation for the art of animation. Who knows, maybe my design choices inspired a future Disney or Pixar animator!

Roll the credits

Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Look at the credits for any film and you’ll see hundreds of names. Likewise, it takes a museum team working with a singular vision and goal to make it all happen. While there are no credits at the end of a museum, if there were, the design would be the star.


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