Matagorda County Museum Our Blog How to Design Successful Historical Exhibits

How to Design Successful Historical Exhibits

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History is a complex subject, full of many competing points of view and interpretations. Historical exhibitions must allow for informed debate of those issues, but they should not suppress controversial topics or impose an uncritical point of view on their visitors. The content of an exhibit may raise sensitive questions, memorialize tragedies, or call attention to injustices, and those are all good things.

A successful exhibition is more than just history put up on the walls, but creative visual poetry that sparks imagination. Objects, graphics, photographs, and re-created spaces all add to our understanding of the past and bring the history to life.

Including the Voices of the People

Museums must do more than simply tell the old histories of their towns and regions; they must include stories from the communities they serve. They need to demonstrate that they deserve their tax-exempt status by serving all of the citizens of a community and not just a wealthy, culturally exclusive few.

Incorporating diverse voices into historical exhibitions is a difficult challenge that requires sensitivity, creativity, and resources. To do so, museums must develop new audiences and explore broader concepts of history that are meaningful to people from different backgrounds. This is an ongoing process that requires constant exploration of new sources and engagement with local communities.

Bending the Rules

Most historic buildings have unique constraints that affect what can and cannot be done to an interior space for an exhibit. For example, there are often limitations on fastening items to a wall or ceiling, lighting is usually not well suited to an historic environment, power locations can be limited or nonexistent, and the use of colors and finishes can conflict with the preservation of the building.

To design a successful exhibition, an exhibit designer needs to understand these constraints and find solutions that are both effective and respectful of the history they are trying to tell. This is not always easy, but it is essential to the success of an exhibit.

A great deal of historical work involves using artifacts in an exhibit context, but not all museums have the resources or space to collect and display the objects needed for a comprehensive and inclusive exhibition. Many exhibit designers are therefore exploring more inclusive ways to tell a story and enabling the visitor to connect with larger ideas in a more intimate manner.

One way to do this is by expanding an exhibit out into the grounds of a historic estate. This allows exhibits to be more interactive and less constrained by the sensitivity of an historic house, while providing a way for people from all walks of life to enjoy the same experience.