From Blank canvas to Exhibit and Story space: Creating the Experience!

When anyone takes the first step through the doors of any museum, they are greeted by a lot of visual information. This is either in the form of a gift shop/welcome center, or a ticket booth and a small initial exhibit space that holds a preview of the wonders within.

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As seen in the pictures above, an empty space has no presence. Nothin invites you in and makes you go, “What’s that?”! This is how all museums, once they are built, look at the start. How do you get from nothing to something like this:

It takes lots of planning to envision, plan, and execute any exhibit. Even more complicated if it is going to be a temporary or “traveling” exhibit. Many questions must be answered. What are we trying to do with this exhibit? Will it fit the museum’s mission? Are our visitors interested in an exhibit like this? Etc.!

Ultimately, many permanent exhibits begin their lives as envisionment within the mind of either a museum educator or, curator. They create the idea of what the empty space can be, and how to use what artifacts or other mediums they have to tell the story that the individual museum wants to convey to its patrons.

A temporary exhibit, like the “Icebergs” at the National Building Museum featured in the video above, takes years to prep. The logistics of getting that exhibit intertwined with the rest of the museum calendar is a nightmare. At the Virginia War Memorial the current featured exhibit “Art of War” took over a year of planning and features work from several dozen individuals, many of them active or retired service members of the military. To accommodate this exhibit the primary galleries on the lower level of the education center were covered with black canvas, leaving the main exhibitions in place while giving the art something to be mounted against.**

In creating a space that is inviting for all ages with its abstract approach to modern exhibit design, the National Building Museum also brought the “Million Ball Beach”, to D.C. in the summer of 2015. It took an all hands on deck approach to change their great hall into an indoor oasis.

In another respect, what happens when a museum is being built? How does it choose to tell its story? What ways can that museum mold its brand new interior facade? Two recent, major examples are the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia (which took over 100 years to develop and build), and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture.

One could argue that the blocky styling of the exterior of the Revolution museum is not in keeping with the period whose story it tells. The grandiose and open interior is styled in a way that harkens back to an era of large ballrooms and banquet halls. This is done to show a contrast between the humbleness of the endeavor and the large undertaking to achieve the end result. For the museum of the American Revolution the goal was to intermingle the artifacts with the building to create an entire sense of awe and understanding of the events that led to the founding of the United States. The exterior and the interior define a cohesive experience.

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For the newest Smithsonian museum, the build-out started in 2003 with then-President George W. Bush signing legislation to guarantee federal funding (270 million dollars) and land for the building.  How that museum has created its image and developed its exhibitions and its mission is intricate and begins with the design.  The exterior multi-layer building in styled to resemble crowns used in West African art and the interior tells stories of African-Americans from the earliest days of the colonies to the modern social activism movements.

When a museum crafts a message it does so with the intent of educating and entertaining an audience.  It starts out as a visionary concept, and finished as a physical marvel to behold for years to come!


**Photographs of “Art of War” exhibit are not permitted as all artwork is for sale and protected by individual copyright agreement


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