Last edited: November 10, 2014

Introduction to Exhibitions

The con­cept of an exhibition

Plat­form Exhi­bi­tions pro­vides a method for organ­is­ing exhi­bi­tions. In order to cre­ate a sub­stan­tial frame­work for this pur­pose, it is first worth con­sid­er­ing the con­cept of an exhi­bi­tion. This sec­tion dis­cusses the phe­nom­e­non itself. What is meant by the term “exhi­bi­tion”? Var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions have been col­lected to this end. In his the­sis Exhi­bi­tions!1. Hjorth gives an overview. Look­ing over these def­i­n­i­tions, it is notice­able that, in addi­tion to ref­er­ence to ‘objects’, two other com­po­nents fre­quently occur in descrip­tions; the design/spatial and com­mu­nica­tive com­po­nents. In Lorenc, these two com­po­nents come together explic­itly. In Exhi­bi­tion design he describes exhi­bi­tions as the dis­ci­pline that is located in the area where the “built envi­ron­ment“2, (space) and com­mu­ni­ca­tion meet.3

Exhibitions as spatial communication medium

Exhi­bi­tions as spa­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tion medium

Often, espe­cially in the world of trade-show stands and retail, exhi­bi­tions are described as 3D Com­mu­ni­ca­tion4. Lord also describes exhi­bi­tions in the Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions as essen­tially a com­mu­nica­tive medium5.

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion com­po­nent is often inter­preted as nar­ra­tive. In line with the expanded def­i­n­i­tion of exhi­bi­tion design drawn up in the late 1980’s within the frame­work of the Frans Hal­s Prize6, Riet­broek describes exhi­bi­tion design in the pub­li­ca­tion Exhi­bi­tion Design as “the shap­ing of an idea, a con­cept of an exhi­bi­tion: a story related to (art) objects in space”7.

Koss­mann en de Jong also empha­sise the narr[ative char­ac­ter of exhi­bi­tions. In their pub­li­ca­tion Engag­ing Spaces, they sum­marise the con­cept pow­er­fully by speak­ing of nar­ra­tive envi­ron­ments8.  Implic­itly, this refers to a direct rela­tion­ship between form and con­tent, such as that expressed by the cura­tors of the Frans Hals Prize: “Not just chap­ter and verse, but par­tic­u­larly the ‘lan­guage’ of things must come together to express the con­cept of the exhi­bi­tion. The rela­tion­ship between form and con­tent is cen­tral to this“9

Also notable is the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary nature of the field that many authors empha­sise. Lorenc sees the con­struc­tion of exhi­bi­tions as;

“An inte­gra­tive process, bring­ing together in vary­ing degrees: archi­tec­ture, inte­rior design, envi­ron­men­tal graphic design, print graph­ics, elec­tron­ics and dig­i­tal media, light­ing, audio, mechan­i­cal inter­ac­tives, other design dis­ciplines“10.

In sev­eral of the def­i­n­i­tions referred to by Hjorth in Exhi­bi­tions! ref­er­ences are made back to these dis­ci­plines. The cura­tors of the Frans Hals Prize state:

Exhi­bi­tion design allows for all aspects of the design­ing dis­ci­pline, inte­rior design/architecture, and also the cor­re­spond­ing graphic design to con­vey a sin­gle con­cept, and rep­re­sent the same vision, sim­i­lar to the direc­tion of a film or a play.“11

In line with the above def­i­n­i­tions, the term “exhi­bi­tion” is inter­preted here as follows:

“An exhi­bi­tion is a means of three-dimensional com­mu­ni­ca­tion in which the rela­tion­ship between form and con­tent is cen­tral, which aims at large groups of the pub­lic and, using its own inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, mainly visual and spa­tial lan­guage – exhi­bi­tion lan­guage — has the pur­pose of trans­fer­ring or con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion, ideas and feel­ings relat­ing to the evi­dence of man and his envi­ron­ment, with the con­scious inten­tion of bring­ing about changes in the knowl­edge, opin­ions, atti­tudes and/or behav­iour of the visitor.”


The term exhi­bi­tion is under­stood here to mean all forms of spa­tial pre­sen­ta­tion, both inside and out­side12., where com­mu­ni­ca­tion takes place. This includes pre­sen­ta­tions that are not directly expe­ri­enced as an exhi­bi­tion such as flag-ship stores, win­dow dis­plays and trade-show stands. In addi­tion, it also includes the per­ma­nent arrange­ments which are often referred to in the daily prac­tice of museum work as the fixed or per­ma­nent presentation.

It is inter­est­ing to find that in the world of com­mer­cial stand con­struc­tion, an indi­vid­ual trade-show stand is not felt to be an exhi­bi­tion, but the sum of all stands are. In this per­cep­tion,  there­fore, an exhi­bi­tion con­sists of a set of stands on a par­tic­u­lar topic, for exam­ple, cars (RAI, Ams­ter­dam), ships (the boat show HISWA in Ams­ter­dam). Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, a trade-show stand is an exhi­bi­tion (albeit very small).


With regard to the con­cept of ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tion’, this is closely con­nected with Ferree’s def­i­n­i­tion. In his book Groot prak­tijk­boek voor effec­tieve com­mu­ni­catie (Large Prac­ti­cal Guide to Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion), he describes com­mu­ni­ca­tion as; “The trans­fer of infor­ma­tion and ideas with the con­scious inten­tion by the sender of achiev­ing desired changes in the knowl­edge, opin­ions, atti­tudes and/or behav­iour of the receiver“13.

Exhi­bi­tion language

This means the use of tech­ni­cal meth­ods used in the exhi­bi­tion to com­mu­ni­cate with the exhibition’s cho­sen tar­get group. In line with the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary nature of exhi­bi­tions men­tioned by many authors this lan­guage con­sists of a com­bi­na­tion of var­i­ous tech­niques bor­rowed from other dis­ci­plines. Exhi­bi­tion lan­guage will be dis­cussed fur­ther in[(Chapter 3.B.1)] .


Evi­dence of man and his envi­ron­ment is under­stood here to encom­pass every­thing that is a prod­uct of man (cul­ture) and envi­ron­ment (nature) regard­less of the form in which it man­i­fests itself. In her­itage the­ory ‘objects’ or ‘data car­ri­ers’ are spo­ken of in this context.

In line with this infor­ma­tive, tes­ti­fy­ing nature, a very broad con­cept of evi­dence of man and his envi­ron­ment is adopted here to include all expres­sions that trans­mit sub­stan­tive infor­ma­tion. Intan­gi­ble expres­sions such as dance, rit­u­als, music, pho­tos, movies and sounds are included here. This broad def­i­n­i­tion also includes objects that do not fall directly within the con­text of for­mal exhi­bi­tions. Mon­u­ments are by the same token inter­preted here as tes­ti­mony of the man and his environment.


An exhi­bi­tion is a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics and is there­fore not suit­able for every sit­u­a­tion. In order to assess whether an exhi­bi­tion is the cor­rect form for a cer­tain pur­pose, a num­ber of strengths and weak­nesses are put for­ward here.



The exhi­bi­tion as a medium stands out in par­tic­u­lar from other com­mu­ni­ca­tion media because it is the only means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion capa­ble of show­ing orig­i­nal or authen­tic objects with­out involv­ing an inter­me­di­ary, such as print­ing tech­niques in the case of a book or using dig­i­tal tech­niques in pho­tos, movies or Inter­net applications.[14 From this vision comes dig­i­tal or vir­tual exhi­bi­tions which, in the last decade with the emer­gence of e-culture, can be found increas­ingly on the web­sites of her­itage insti­tu­tions, although are not per­ceived as real exhi­bi­tions. They resem­ble a mod­ern ver­sion of the cat­a­logue, where the vir­tual vis­i­tor can visit what is, to a greater or lesser extent, a dig­i­tally recon­structed exhi­bi­tion space. He/she can learn more about an object by click­ing on it. For that mat­ter, dig­i­tal or vir­tual exhi­bi­tions thus form an inter­est­ing addi­tion to the ways in which insti­tu­tions can inform their vis­i­tors and in that sense are an impor­tant addi­tion to exhi­bi­tion programmes.]

Objects can be seen — in anal­ogy to a movie or play — as the actors of the exhi­bi­tion, the parts that really mat­ter, those who make the show. By exhibit­ing authen­tic objects the vis­i­tor comes into con­tact with the orig­i­nal and is con­fronted with a piece of real­ity. Indeed, he or she comes into con­tact with the direct source, such as the real Night Watch or Mona Lisa or Churchill’s gen­uine cigar butt or the real skull of the first human or that of a dinosaur.14 This authenticity-aspect also applies to com­mer­cial exhi­bi­tions. Vis­i­tors can become acquainted with the gen­uine arti­cles by touch­ing, see­ing things up close and if desir­able, by tast­ing or sniffing.

The impor­tance of authen­tic­ity is illus­trated when the cura­tor of the exhi­bi­tion uses repli­cas with­out men­tion­ing it. This often leads to vis­i­tor dis­ap­point­ment when they notice that the orig­i­nal is not shown. Obvi­ously the vis­i­tors were expect­ing to see an authen­tic or orig­i­nal object. How­ever, the ques­tion here is whether we really should con­sider objects shown in exhi­bi­tions as authen­tic or not. The objects are in fact muse­alised by her­itage insti­tu­tions, i.e. selected and removed from their orig­i­nal or intended con­text (pri­mary con­text). The same is true for prod­ucts on trade fair stands, although this is not called muse­al­i­sa­tion. Also, objects are often so fre­quently or inten­sively restored that lit­tle remains of the orig­i­nal. This has led peo­ple within the her­itage world to opt for con­ser­va­tion rather than restora­tion. This means retain­ing the object in the state in which evi­dence of all use is still vis­i­ble, instead of restor­ing it back to its orig­i­nal state. The tricky ques­tion aris­ing from this is ‘what is the orig­i­nal state?’ Which of the var­i­ous stages that an object goes through in its life is the orig­i­nal one? Sev­eral authors (Lowen­thal, van Men­sch, Pine and Gilmore) indi­cate that per­cep­tion of authen­tic­ity is based on an aura that is cre­ated around the object by author­i­ties such as a museum or a com­pany. In the com­mer­cial world a strong brand or mark are spo­ken of instead. Authen­tic­ity is there­fore a rel­a­tive concept.

The muse­ol­o­gist van Men­sch in his arti­cle De gave en de vloek van het authen­tieke (The Gift and the Curse of the Authen­tic) placed authen­tic­ity in a three­fold polar­ity, namely:

  • the gen­e­sis, and cor­re­spond­ingly, the inten­tion with which the object was created;
  • the sci­en­tific and legal sta­tus, includ­ing the authorship;
  • the mate­r­ial preser­va­tion and, con­nected to this, the afore­men­tioned his­tory of the object and the traces or marks it has left behind15.

Besides, per­cep­tion of authen­tic­ity is culture-bound. For exam­ple, in Asian cul­tures peo­ple attach much less impor­tance to the dif­fer­ence between an authen­tic object and a replica. In these cul­tures, the intrin­sic value and orig­i­nal­ity trans­fers auto­mat­i­cally to the replica if it is accu­rately reproduced.

In sum­mary it can be stated, that given the ambigu­ous mean­ing of authen­tic­ity in rela­tion to the vis­i­tors per­cep­tion that they are see­ing the real or authen­tic object at an exhi­bi­tion, the exhi­bi­tion maker has the impor­tant respon­si­bil­ity of indi­cat­ing which inter­pre­ta­tion has been given to the object in the con­text of that exhibition.


A sec­ond and often under­es­ti­mated aspect dis­tin­guish­ing the medium of exhi­bi­tion from other com­mu­ni­ca­tion media is its three-dimensional char­ac­ter. This spa­tial aspect gives the exhi­bi­tion maker sev­eral unique com­mu­ni­ca­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties, in particular:

  • the pos­si­bil­ity of phys­i­cally immers­ing the vis­i­tor in a per­sonal world; a world where the fun­da­men­tal mes­sage is com­mu­ni­cated in a per­cep­tive and mean­ing­ful way; and one where the vis­i­tor expe­ri­ences this with height­ened inten­sity through mul­ti­ple senses. Van Men­sch defines this in the con­text of exhi­bi­tions as: the com­pressed real­ity of space and time;
  • the easy estab­lish­ment of three-dimensional rela­tion­ships between themes. The two-dimensional nature of most other media often makes the estab­lish­ment of more than two rela­tion­ships very dif­fi­cult16;
  • apply­ing sev­eral infor­ma­tion lay­ers, for exam­ple, a children’s nar­ra­tive thread.

Auton­omy in sequence and tempo

Many forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have a sequen­tial char­ac­ter. That is, the the­matic whole can only be fol­lowed accord­ing to the order laid down by the author/maker. In books, films, the­atre etc., time, space and place are cho­sen for the audi­ence and delib­er­ately placed in a cer­tain order. The pub­lic needs to fol­low this order to under­stand. There are also forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as web­sites, news­pa­pers, games and exhi­bi­tions, which have a more erratic nature. Within the spa­tial struc­ture given by exhi­bi­tion mak­ers, the vis­i­tor can decide which parts he wants to visit and in what order. This has the advan­tage of giv­ing the vis­i­tor a great free­dom of choice, but makes organ­is­ing con­tent in a cohe­sive way much more com­plex, espe­cially if con­sis­tent coher­ent infor­ma­tion needs to be conveyed.

In sequen­tial media, the sequence of dif­fer­ent units of time and time lapse play a role. The tempo at which the var­i­ous com­po­nents are offered is deter­mined by the author/maker. Basi­cally, if the vis­i­tor or viewer briefly with­draws from the per­for­mance, they miss part of the story and run the risk of not being able make con­nec­tions hence­forth. At exhi­bi­tions, vis­i­tors can not only choose to visit the exhi­bi­tion in a self-determined order, but they can also choose to do it at their own pace. In fact, the vis­i­tor con­structs their own coher­ence of the con­tent offered in the exhibition.


A char­ac­ter­is­tic of exhi­bi­tions is the mix of dif­fer­ent media car­ry­ing the cohe­sive mes­sage. While this is true to a lesser extent for the­atre, there are no other medi­ums with such a flex­i­ble mul­ti­me­dia char­ac­ter. ​​Com­bined with the spa­tial­ity of an exhi­bi­tion men­tioned above, end­less form com­bi­na­tions can be made. This could include com­bi­na­tions of images, texts, audio-visual pro­grammes, smells, sounds, lights, and sim­ple to highly advanced hands-, body-and mind-on inter­ac­tive dis­plays. The­atre per­for­mances, oral his­tory actors and other the­atri­cal forms can also be part of an exhibition.

Media Mix

An exhi­bi­tion rarely stands alone and is often part of a range of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools to get in touch with dif­fer­ent audi­ence seg­ments. Thus a num­ber of addi­tional activ­i­ties or prod­ucts aimed at spe­cific tar­get groups are often devel­oped in con­nec­tion to the exhi­bi­tion. Exam­ples include edu­ca­tional pro­grammes, cat­a­logues, lec­tures, tours, and Inter­net appli­ca­tions with audio– and smartphone-generated information.



The medium of exhi­bi­tions lends itself less well to the trans­mis­sion of direct the­matic infor­ma­tion. In prac­tice, it appears that out of every­thing that there is to con­vey about a sub­ject, in gen­eral only a rel­a­tively lim­ited amount will actu­ally be addressed in an exhi­bi­tion. Of course, this should be the essence of the sub­ject. In this the­matic sense the medium has there­fore a more jour­nal­is­tic nature. More pro­found infor­ma­tion can often be eas­ier addressed in, for exam­ple, a book or a doc­u­men­tary. In many exhi­bi­tions this infor­ma­tion is offered through exhi­bi­tion linked media such as a cat­a­logue, a brochure or a doc­u­men­tary avail­able on DVD. Also media like a guided tour, web­site or lec­ture can deepen the infor­ma­tion pro­vided in the exhi­bi­tion.  The dia­gram below shows the rela­tion­ship between avail­able infor­ma­tion and trans­fer of knowl­edge through the medium of exhibitions.

relationship available information and transfer of knowledge through exhibitions

Rela­tion­ship avail­able infor­ma­tion and trans­fer of knowl­edge through exhibitions

This does not mean that an exhi­bi­tion is super­fi­cial. The above refers rather to the fact that not all infor­ma­tion avail­able through (sci­en­tific) research can be fully included in the exhi­bi­tion. In this sense, the medium of exhi­bi­tion lends itself less well to cog­ni­tive goals, wherein com­mu­ni­ca­tion is mainly focused on the trans­fer of the­matic data and aspects of a sub­ject. On the whole, the medium of exhi­bi­tion lends itself bet­ter towards affec­tive goals. By immers­ing the vis­i­tor in a per­va­sive three-dimensional world and let­ting them expe­ri­ence infor­ma­tion almost phys­i­cally through inter­ac­tive media, where the route and tempo are self-determined by the vis­i­tor, exhi­bi­tions are the per­fect medium to make peo­ple curi­ous, raise aware­ness, to amaze, inspire or oth­er­wise address the vis­i­tor emotionally.

When using a mix of media, exhi­bi­tions lend them­selves well as an intro­duc­tion to a sub­ject. The exhi­bi­tion pro­vides emo­tional involve­ment in the topic, whilst the­matic infor­ma­tion is con­veyed only on a broad level. Pub­li­ca­tions and web­sites can be offered after­wards thereby mak­ing more in-depth infor­ma­tion avail­able that can be processed pri­vately and in peace and quiet. Barry Lord also points out that exhi­bi­tions are more affec­tive than cog­ni­tive in nature and that it is pre­cisely by this affec­tive char­ac­ter that they encour­age fur­ther under­stand­ing of a topic through other media. In his opin­ion, exhi­bi­tions also aim:

to trans­form some aspect of the vis­i­tors inter­est, atti­tudes or val­ues ​​affec­tively, due to the visitor’s dis­cov­ery of some level of mean­ing in the objects on dis­play — a dis­cov­ery that is stim­u­lated and sus­tained by the visitor’s con­fi­dence in the per­ceived authen­tic­ity or those objects.“17


Exhi­bi­tions are set up to show objects. Such an arrange­ment pre­sup­poses a sta­tic char­ac­ter and many exhi­bi­tions, par­tic­u­larly tra­di­tional exhi­bi­tions, are organ­ised in this way. The vis­i­tor passes through a space in which objects hang on the wall and/or are placed in dis­play cases, either accord­ing to a cer­tain struc­ture or not. A short text explains the object. Com­mer­cial envi­ron­ments such as exhi­bi­tion stands and shop win­dows also often have a sta­tic char­ac­ter such as this. Muse­ums have acquired a ‘bor­ing’ image because of these sta­tic exhibits. Inci­den­tally, this con­fig­u­ra­tion can be ideal if the only goal of the exhi­bi­tion is the dis­play of objects. Often this involves empha­sis­ing the aes­thetic qual­ity of the objects in these cases.

Dis­play­ing objects in this clas­si­cal way has lim­i­ta­tions in terms of con­tent and the tech­ni­cal side of exhi­bi­tions. For exam­ple in an exhi­bi­tion on clogs it is much eas­ier to show what types of clogs there are and what tools exist to make them, rather than show­ing how clogs are actu­ally made with the tools dis­played. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the medium of exhi­bi­tion tends towards a sta­tic whole through the objects. Dynamism must be added, in the case of the exam­ple through adding the mak­ing process from the clogs; in other words by adding the con­text of the objects. In com­par­i­son, films have the reverse prob­lem. They can show move­ment and processes bet­ter than sta­tic items like paint­ings. His­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­taries show this prob­lem when using paint­ings. In order to cre­ate a cin­e­matic effect they have to zoom in and out of the paint­ings, often accom­pa­nied by appro­pri­ate sounds. In this sense exhi­bi­tions and films can be seen as being com­ple­men­tary to one another. With the arrival of afford­able film image car­ri­ers — par­tic­u­larly with the arrival of video recorders in the 1980s — the dynamic nature of exhi­bi­tions has increased. Due to the rel­a­tively recent pro­jec­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties afforded by high qual­ity pro­jec­tors, exhi­bi­tions today have some­times become com­plete shows with floor-to-ceiling pro­jec­tions of mov­ing images and light.

In some cases, exhi­bi­tions can quite lit­er­ally be dynamic. An exam­ple of this is the Bokken rijders (Goat Rid­ers) attrac­tion in Eftel­ing Amuse­ment Park (Villa Volta) where a room moves with the vis­i­tors inside it. Another exam­ple is World 3 at the Rail­way Museum in Utrecht where the vis­i­tors van take a seat in carts and are led along, under and around two immured loco­mo­tives. How­ever, these types of high-tech exhi­bi­tions are still excep­tions and occur mainly in envi­ron­ments like sci­ence cen­tres and theme parks. Partly due to the high costs and the rel­a­tively short shelf life of such attrac­tions, these tech­niques are not as com­monly used in her­itage– and com­mer­cial envi­ron­ments as stands. From the point of view of the­matic and/or tech­ni­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, it is ques­tion­able whether it is use­ful apply­ing such tech­niques. Also some­times it can be asked whether they are pri­mar­ily used to show what is tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble or out of the desire to inno­vate for inno­va­tion, with­out fur­ther thought.

Depend­ing on the objec­tives one has in mind, it makes sense to make judi­cious use of old and new media side-by-side. There are no taboos about the use of any tech­nique and, there­fore, every new tech­nique is wel­comed as poten­tially use­ful. If a tech­nique which was devel­oped for use in amuse­ment parks is also effec­tive within a her­itage con­text, it makes sense to use it. If a tech­nique serves the tar­get audi­ence and objec­tives the best, then that is seen as the most opti­mal approach. To con­clude, every tech­nique of exhi­bi­tion is pos­si­ble as long as the tar­get group and tar­gets are the main dri­vers in the choice and not the tech­nique itself.


In Auton­omy in sequence and tempo[(para­graph: Autonomie in sequence and tempo)] it was indi­cated that exhi­bi­tions have the advan­tage that the vis­i­tor him­self can deter­mine which parts he will take on and in what order within the phys­i­cal struc­ture defined by the exhi­bi­tion mak­ers. Depend­ing on the pur­pose of the exhi­bi­tion and the cho­sen struc­ture, it can some­times be use­ful to apply a par­tic­u­lar route in an exhi­bi­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, if a con­sis­tent and cohe­sive story is to be con­veyed, prob­lems will be caused if vis­i­tors are allowed too much free­dom of movement.

Often exhi­bi­tion mak­ers try to enforce adher­ence to a cer­tain order through spa­tial means. As sim­ple and obvi­ous as this is in media, like in a book or a film, it is more com­pli­cated in an exhi­bi­tion. A route is gen­er­ally enforced by spa­tial means. This can be done with the help of pan­els which are placed in a cer­tain direc­tion or with arrows, wide entrances ver­sus nar­row exits, the hang­ing or plac­ing of objects in a cer­tain order, corridor-like lay­outs, and so on. Often these mea­sures prove to have lim­ited effec­tive­ness. In gen­eral it can be stated that it is not impos­si­ble to impose a com­pul­sory route in an exhi­bi­tion, but that it is often only par­tially achiev­able due to the visitor’s nat­ural desire to find their own path.

Based on these expe­ri­ences it is advis­able not to route an exhi­bi­tion. It is more impor­tant to give the exhi­bi­tion a clear struc­ture; for exam­ple, by divid­ing it into clearly iden­ti­fi­able areas which also form a the­matic unit; e.g. a main theme. Within this space vis­i­tors can then wan­der between recog­nis­able tech­ni­cal exhi­bi­tion units (pre­sen­ta­tions), each of which again forms a the­matic unit and shows /tells a part of the story that is dis­cussed within the space as a whole. Apply­ing a com­pul­sory route based on the spa­tial struc­ture is rel­a­tively easy and has the advan­tage that the vis­i­tor can set the route for himself/herself. In Spot­ting Plans[In Chap­ter 3 B 3] we shall return to the con­tent and spa­tial struc­tures of exhi­bi­tions as well as to the mak­ing of an exhi­bi­tion rout­ing in more detail.

Range and accessibility

Com­pared with media such as books and films that you can also use at home, exhi­bi­tions are less acces­si­ble. Not only are there loca­tion ties but also ties to open­ing hours and to some­times sub­stan­tial admis­sion prices. Also, many exhibits are only open for a lim­ited period of time, usu­ally no longer than a few months.

For the dis­abled, vis­it­ing exhi­bi­tions often causes addi­tional prob­lems. Not all insti­tu­tions or exhi­bi­tion rooms are acces­si­ble for the dis­abled due to the fact that many cul­tural insti­tu­tions are housed in his­toric build­ings, often with nar­row stair­cases. There are also ergonomic prob­lems with, in par­tic­u­lar, giv­ing wheel­chair users good vis­i­bil­ity at the exhi­bi­tion. This will be dis­cussed in more detail in Ergonomics[(5 B 4)] .

The Cor­rect Medium

Based on this analy­sis of strengths and weak­nesses, it is appar­ent that the exhi­bi­tion medium is not suit­able for all com­mu­ni­ca­tion pur­poses. It is impor­tant to con­sider whether the com­mu­ni­ca­tion objec­tives and/or the sub­ject are suit­able enough when decid­ing whether to set-up an exhi­bi­tion. As shown in this chap­ter, exhi­bi­tions lend them­selves par­tic­u­larly well to the achieve­ment of affec­tive goals and to dis­play­ing authen­tic objects. They also lend them­selves to sub­jects where use can be made of the spa­tial power of the medium by phys­i­cally engag­ing vis­i­tors in an inten­tion­ally cre­ated world.  An abstract sub­ject, such as the ideas of the philoso­pher Spin­oza, is less suit­able and would be bet­ter con­veyed by means of a book. How­ever, his life as a lens-grinder in the Nether­lands is eas­ier to manip­u­late into an exhi­bi­tion due to the her­itage that remains there. The dis­play of activ­i­ties also lends itself more to a cin­e­matic approach. This does not mean that abstract or activity-oriented sub­jects could not be trans­ferred to an exhi­bi­tion, just that the exhi­bi­tion medium is less suitable.

Regard­ing com­mer­cial exhi­bi­tions, it should be noted in this con­text, that pub­lic rela­tions depart­ments often almost auto­mat­i­cally opt for par­tic­i­pa­tion with­out con­sid­er­ing whether a trade show stand is the right medium with respect to the mar­ket­ing objec­tives of the insti­tu­tion. There is a broad range of media avail­able to the busi­ness com­mu­nity for reach­ing their tar­get groups. Every com­mu­ni­ca­tion plan should con­sider which media are the most suit­able for achiev­ing the mar­ket­ing objec­tives of that spe­cific plan. Here, too, use is often made of a media mix — a selec­tion of com­ple­men­tary media; for exam­ple, a radio and/or tele­vi­sion spot in con­junc­tion with a bill­board cam­paign and/or direct marketing.

Types of Exhibitions

Exhi­bi­tions can be found in sev­eral for­mats. As indi­cated above, the term exhi­bi­tion is inter­preted here broadly to mean all forms of spa­tial pre­sen­ta­tion where com­mu­ni­ca­tion takes place. This inter­pre­ta­tion includes pre­sen­ta­tions that are not imme­di­ately per­ceived as an exhi­bi­tion, such as flag-ship stores, win­dow dis­plays and trade-show stands. Included here is an overview of the breadth of the field.

Breadth of the Field

Breadth of the Field

This overview defines the breadth of the field rang­ing from the mar­ket­places in ancient Rome to todays flag-ship stores such as those from Apple and T-mobile. From this per­spec­tive, exhi­bi­tions also include trade fair stands such as ones from the car brand Jaguar, theme parks such as Dis­ney­land, world exhi­bi­tions like in Han­nover in 2000 (Dutch Pavil­ion), sci­ence cen­tres such as La Vil­lette in Paris, vis­i­tor cen­tres, such as the envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion cen­tre De Hoep in Cas­tricum, his­tor­i­cal vis­i­tor cen­tres as at the National Mon­u­ment on the Grebbe­berg and finally muse­ums, such as the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen. Inci­den­tally, this overview is not com­plete – dec­o­rated shop win­dows, zoos and gal­leries could also be added to the field.

Com­mer­cial and Cul­tural Exhibitions

In exhi­bi­tions, a com­mon dis­tinc­tion is made between com­mer­cial and cul­tural exhi­bi­tions. Com­mer­cial exhi­bi­tions are all exhi­bi­tions that are con­nected to the busi­ness com­mu­nity and/or have com­mer­cial objec­tives. This is mainly flag-ship stores and trade-show stands18, amuse­ment parks etc; the type of exhi­bi­tions that appear in the fig­ure on the left. Cul­tural exhi­bi­tions are focused on ide­al­is­tic objec­tives, in par­tic­u­lar on edu­ca­tion and the preser­va­tion of cul­ture and are shown on the right in this dia­gram.19

Inci­den­tally, there are also types in between the two, such as cor­po­rate muse­ums. These are indeed asso­ci­ated with a com­pany, but have no direct com­mer­cial objec­tives, and focus instead on more ide­al­is­tic goals, often aim­ing to cre­ate and main­tain a cor­po­rate cul­ture and com­pany pride. This kind of muse­ums are reg­u­larly used for the mar­ket­ing of the company.

Although technically-speaking these are all exhi­bi­tions, there is a large dif­fer­ence between the world of com­mer­cial and cul­tural exhi­bi­tions and they even have a ten­dency to mutu­ally exclu­sive. Design­ers and exhi­bi­tion con­struc­tion com­pa­nies do carry out assign­ment for both types,  how­ever, even here there is spe­cial­i­sa­tion, with design agen­cies that spe­cialise in either com­mer­cial or cul­tural exhibitions.

Museum exhi­bi­tions

In the arti­cle Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Exhi­bi­tions20, Van Men­sch estab­lishes the begin­nings of a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work from a muse­o­log­i­cal point of view for an ana­lyt­i­cal approach to museum exhi­bi­tions. He bases his analy­sis on a dis­tinc­tion between three aspects of the phys­i­cal iden­tity of exhi­bi­tions namely: struc­ture, style and tech­nique. By these terms the fol­low­ing is meant:


This refers to the way the con­tent of the exhi­bi­tion is organised/the approach that is used in muse­o­log­i­cal exhi­bi­tions and the role the objects play as data car­ri­ers. Van Men­sch pro­poses mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between four types of structure:

  • Sub­jec­tive struc­ture: These are exhi­bi­tions that are put together by the col­lec­tor him­self. Van Men­sch refers in this con­text notably to the very first muse­ums – the kun­stkamers and cab­i­nets of curiosi­ties — which were based on a her­met­i­cal and metaphor­i­cal world. Here each object rep­re­sented a larger, more uni­ver­sal mean­ing. A col­lec­tion as a whole formed a coded entity of occult knowl­edge. It was only the col­lec­tor who could deci­pher this world of coded knowledge.
  • Sys­tem­atic struc­ture: This type of struc­ture fea­tures exhi­bi­tions with a lin­ear struc­ture along sci­en­tific, often tax­o­nomic, typo­log­i­cal or chrono­log­i­cal lines. The objects are pre­pared within this struc­ture, iso­lated from their social con­text. Often these type of exhibits have a deter­min­is­tic char­ac­ter or are ori­en­tated around the idea of progress, where there is lit­tle room for doubt or con­flict­ing views. This rigid science-oriented struc­ture was used by many muse­ums as a basis for their exhibits from the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury until the 1950s.
  • Nar­ra­tive struc­ture: This struc­ture has grown through­out the course of the 20th cen­tury and, in par­tic­u­lar, dur­ing the 1970’s along with the increas­ing edu­ca­tional role of museum. The story behind the objects, rather than the objects them­selves is cen­tral to those respon­si­ble for the exhi­bi­tion. Accord­ing to van Men­sch, exhi­bi­tions with this type of struc­ture are based on a sto­ry­line, which ensures that exhibits of this type have a highly lin­ear character.
  • Eco­log­i­cal struc­ture: As van Men­sch explains, with this type of struc­ture, simul­tane­ity instead of lin­ear­ity is cen­tral in story lines. Sev­eral pre­sen­ta­tions are offered simul­ta­ne­ously. The vis­i­tor can observe these accord­ing to his own desires and self-determined order. A rout­ing is absent. The vis­i­tor wan­ders through the exhibition.

For style van Men­sch means the gen­eral atmos­phere in which the com­mu­ni­ca­tion process takes place. He dis­tin­guishes three exhi­bi­tion styles: aes­thetic, evoca­tive and didactical.


Accord­ing to van Men­sch, tech­nique refers to the prac­ti­cal tech­niques of infor­ma­tion trans­fer. Fol­low­ing Roger Miles, he sug­gests the fol­low­ing techniques:

  • Sta­tic: Exhibits that do not change;
  • Dynamic: Exhibits which change in order to illus­trate dif­fer­ent states, such as films or exhibits that may be switched on by a visitor;
  • Inter­ac­tive: Exhibits that involve the vis­i­tor in some sort of dialogue.

From Per­ma­nent to travelling

Another for­mat com­monly used to char­ac­terise exhi­bi­tions is based on the dura­tion and form of an exhi­bi­tion. Here are the main types:

  • per­ma­nent exhibitions;
  • semi-permanent exhi­bi­tions;
  • tem­po­rary or exhibitions;
  • trav­el­ling exhibitions.

Per­ma­nent exhibitions

Most muse­ums, espe­cially the more tra­di­tional ones, have a per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion. This is where in art (his­tor­i­cal) muse­ums the core col­lec­tion is shown. More story-oriented muse­ums, usu­ally his­tor­i­cal, nat­ural his­tory, eth­no­log­i­cal and tech­ni­cal muse­ums, dis­play their core story here; for exam­ple, the his­tory of the city in a city museum or of a region in a regional museum.

Until the end of the 20th cen­tury these per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tions were really per­ma­nent. These exhi­bi­tions lasted decades or even cen­turies, as with the Teylers Museum in Haar­lem, with only minor changes or addi­tions. Since the 1990s, the dura­tion of these exhibits has started to decrease as increas­ingly muse­ums renew them­selves in order to con­tinue to fas­ci­nate their visitors.

Another rea­son for the increas­ingly shorter dura­tion of per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tions is the rapid devel­op­ment of tech­niques. Appli­ca­tions age very quickly, not just in the audio-visual and dig­i­tal field, but also in the field of design and in the use of public-oriented com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques. Because of this, exhi­bi­tions become out­dated more quickly. Despite waves of aus­ter­ity in recent decades, there is more and more finance avail­able for the re-design or re-building of muse­ums. Nowa­days the life span of a per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion has reduced to 10 or 15 years. The trend is towards even shorter peri­ods.

In the light of these devel­op­ments, there has been increas­ing inter­est in renewa­bil­ity and, in con­junc­tion with this, sus­tain­abil­ity. Sus­tain­abil­ity focuses on envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity, whilst renewa­bil­ity involves devel­op­ing tech­niques to quickly and cheaply adapt con­tent and/or the tech­ni­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of parts of exhi­bi­tions in order to improve their func­tion from an audi­ence and a tech­ni­cal point of view or to adapt them to new the­matic information.

Semi Per­ma­nent exhibitions

Influ­enced by an increas­ingly public-oriented approach at the end of 20th cen­tury, a num­ber of muse­ums are cur­rently mov­ing to elim­i­nate their per­ma­nent pre­sen­ta­tion and replace it with a num­ber of semi-permanent exhi­bi­tions. These are exhibits that last for about 3 years and are then replaced. By chang­ing one of the semi-permanent exhibits every year, a museum can keep renew­ing itself and encour­age vis­i­tors to come to the museum. Such poli­cies are also imple­mented due to the­matic con­sid­er­a­tions. In a per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion, the museum’s theme can only be addressed once and often sim­ply, whereby, due to space restraints, only an out­line of the theme can be dealt with. By work­ing with semi-permanent exhi­bi­tions in the form of sub-themes, the sub­ject of the museum gets to be han­dled in depth but can also adapt to new insights into con­tent or tech­nol­ogy. A good exam­ple of a museum apply­ing such an approach is the Mar­itime Museum Rot­ter­dam. This museum cov­ers the his­tory, cur­rent affairs and future of mar­itime Nether­lands and con­tains a spe­cial arrange­ment for the inter­na­tional port of Rot­ter­dam21. Exam­ples of sub-themes are ship­build­ing, the port of Rot­ter­dam and ship­ping com­pany22.

Tem­po­rary exhibitions

This type of exhi­bi­tion extends to almost all her­itage insti­tu­tions. Muse­ums, archives, vis­i­tor and sci­ence cen­tres try to address top­i­cal issues and to attract repeat vis­i­tors through tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions. The dura­tion varies from a few days for exhi­bi­tions con­nected with an event, anniver­sary or com­mem­o­ra­tion, to about 6 months. Tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions that last longer than a year are rare. Accord­ing to van Men­sch, the organ­i­sa­tion of tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions emerged dur­ing the course of the 19th cen­tury in rela­tion to the strong growth of museum col­lec­tions dur­ing that period. He speaks in this con­text of the rise of the bi-partite museum model — a model that abides in most muse­ums today — where a selec­tion of the col­lec­tion is dis­played in a per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion and the major­ity of the col­lec­tion is stored in depots. Fol­low­ing on from this devel­op­ment, muse­ums started organ­is­ing tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions from the museum’s stored col­lec­tion.23.

It is strik­ing that nowa­days tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions do not always have a direct rela­tion­ship with the col­lec­tion of the insti­tu­tion, as parts of the col­lec­tion are high­lighted that would not nor­mally be included in the per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion. Often themes are sug­gested from the exhi­bi­tions pol­icy or due to mar­ket­ing con­sid­er­a­tions that, whilst sup­port­ing the mis­sion of the museum, are in areas where the insti­tu­tion has no col­lec­tion. The increas­ing influ­ence of mar­ket­ing on exhi­bi­tions pol­icy also has the effect of pro­gres­sively focus­ing this afore­men­tioned pol­icy on draw­ing large num­bers of vis­i­tors. As a result of the pri­vati­sa­tion of many her­itage insti­tu­tions, this has become a neces­sity. Fund­ing bod­ies increas­ingly pay out to insti­tu­tions on the basis of vis­i­tor num­bers. This devel­op­ment has led to an increase in the num­ber of so-called block­buster exhi­bi­tions24. These are exhi­bi­tions that have been set up on a large scale, using inten­sive pro­mo­tional cam­paigns, often com­bined with exten­sive mer­chan­dis­ing, aimed at draw­ing large num­bers of vis­i­tors. In order to achieve these objec­tives, pop­u­lar themes are gen­er­ally used, some­times return­ing to the same themes time and time again. Exam­ples are Ver­meer, Rem­brandt and Van Gogh exhi­bi­tions. The name Picasso also crops up in this con­text reg­u­larly. The trav­el­ling Tutankhamun and Da Vinci exhi­bi­tions are also good exam­ples of this type of money-making exhi­bi­tions, as well as spec­tac­u­lar exhi­bi­tions on top­ics such as Bod­ies and the Ter­ra­cotta Army from Xi’an China. Inci­den­tally, there are cul­tural insti­tu­tions that do not have their own col­lec­tion and there­fore only present tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions. Exam­ples of this are art insti­tutes or cen­tres and also smaller galleries.

Trav­el­ling Exhibitions

We can dis­tin­guish between dif­fer­ent types of trav­el­ling exhibitions:

Sys­tem exhibitions

A sys­tem exhi­bi­tion is an exhi­bi­tion which is eas­ily built and dis­as­sem­bled by one or a few peo­ple in a small amount of time, and is eas­ily trans­ported often in sev­eral boxes in a small bus. These are mainly smaller exhi­bi­tions trav­el­ling between insti­tu­tions that do not have the capac­ity to make exhi­bi­tions them­selves, such as smaller libraries and envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tional vis­i­tors cen­tres. Com­mu­nity organ­i­sa­tions with char­i­ta­ble goals, such as the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment or refugee organ­i­sa­tions, also often develop these exhi­bi­tions usu­ally with the help of exter­nal experts, to get their mes­sage across to a wider audi­ence. Gen­er­ally, this involves exhi­bi­tions which con­sist pri­mar­ily of graph­ics and show lit­tle or no three-dimensional objects. Objects with a muse­o­log­i­cal value are hardly ever incor­po­rated into the­ses types of sim­ple exhi­bi­tions, due to cli­ma­to­log­i­cal considerations.

Trans­portable Exhibitions

This type of exhi­bi­tion is a rel­a­tively recent phe­nom­e­non. These are exhi­bi­tions that are cre­ated in a coop­er­a­tion between sev­eral cul­tural insti­tu­tions, usu­ally muse­ums, and which then travel between these insti­tu­tions. Unlike sys­tem exhi­bi­tions, these are gen­er­ally larger exhi­bi­tions assem­bled and dis­man­tled by a team of spe­cial­ists, where the exhi­bi­tion equip­ment is often trans­ported as a whole in large trans­port con­tain­ers. Objects travel all over the world thanks to mod­ern tech­niques. The pre­vi­ously men­tioned Tutankhamun exhi­bi­tion is an exam­ple of this. For exam­ple, Swedish Trav­el­ling Exhi­bi­tions (Rik­sut­ställ­ningar) devel­oped a num­ber of exhi­bi­tions that were trans­ported in trains and ships.

Trans­portable exhi­bi­tions can come about in sev­eral ways:

  • Joint design and cre­ation of the exhi­bi­tion: A good exam­ple of this is the exhi­bi­tion The Mys­te­ri­ous Bog peo­ple. This exhi­bi­tion was organ­ised at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tury on the ini­tia­tive of the Dren­the Museum in Assen in a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Cana­dian Museum of Civ­i­liza­tion, the Nieder­säch­sis­chen Lan­desmu­seum and the Glen­bow Museum in Canada. For the assem­bly of the exhi­bi­tion a sep­a­rate web­site was set-up. After hav­ing trav­elled between the par­tic­i­pat­ing insti­tu­tions, the exhi­bi­tion is now shown on a rental basis in sev­eral other set­tings. Oppor­tu­ni­ties for this sort of col­lab­o­ra­tion are increas­ing more and more, often between insti­tu­tions with sim­i­lar col­lec­tions, such as nat­ural his­tory and ethno­graphic museums.
  • Exhi­bi­tions pro­duced by one insti­tu­tion which are then forwarded/leased to other insti­tu­tions: Although this occurs on an occa­sional basis too, there are var­i­ous insti­tu­tions that do this on a reg­u­lar basis and even have a sep­a­rate depart­ment for this. Exam­ples include the Vic­to­ria and Albert Museum (V & A Tour­ing Exhi­bi­tions), The Nat­ural His­tory Museum in Lon­don, the Musée de la Civil­i­sa­tion in Que­bec, the Smith­son­ian in Wash­ing­ton DC and the Cincin­nati Museum, USA. An impor­tant insti­tute in this respect is Swedish Trav­el­ling Exhi­bi­tions (Rik­sut­ställ­ningar). It was founded in 1965 to make art from the large and national muse­ums, largely con­cen­trated in Stock­holm, acces­si­ble to a wider audi­ence through trav­el­ling exhi­bi­tions. In the past 40 years, the insti­tute has devel­oped into one of the largest pro­duc­ers of trav­el­ling exhi­bi­tions in the world. Dur­ing this period, more than 1200 large and small exhi­bi­tions were pro­duced of which a por­tion has trav­elled not only through­out Swe­den, but also through Europe. The build­ing and shar­ing of knowl­edge in the exhi­bi­tion field has become one of the focal points in this, which is also reflected in the new mis­sion of Rik­sut­ställ­ningar.

“Our new mis­sion aim to develop the exhi­bi­tion media through­out the coun­try so that vis­i­tors can meet exhi­bi­tions of high qual­ity. Here­after the work will be done both with, by and also for those who work pro­fes­sion­ally within the exhi­bi­tion field — in short, in col­lab­o­ra­tion and based on actual needs.”

Coop­er­a­tion between insti­tu­tions can also occur on a more mod­est level where only the col­lec­tion or the con­cept of the exhi­bi­tion is trans­ported, rather than the exhi­bi­tion as a whole.  In fact the coop­er­a­tion here is mainly in terms of theme rather than in terms of the design and con­struc­tion of the exhibition.

Object and information-oriented exhibitions

As stated above, the mate­r­ial evi­dence of man and his envi­ron­ment or in other words, authen­tic mate­r­ial and imma­te­r­ial objects, play a cen­tral role in exhi­bi­tions. Objects are selected (col­lected) in a museum con­text because they are valu­able. In basic terms, an object is of value by the con­text that is con­nected to the object. In her­itage the­ory this is called sig­nif­i­cance. An object is not sim­ply either valu­able or worth­less, but can be valu­able from sev­eral per­spec­tives. For exam­ple, an object can be valu­able because it is the only sur­viv­ing spec­i­men or because of its sym­bolic value due to the role it played dur­ing a his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant event. A method for the deter­mi­na­tion of these dif­fer­ent val­ues ​​is the Sig­nif­i­cance Assess­ment Model (SAM) devel­oped by CAN.

An exhi­bi­tion maker places the objects in an exhi­bi­tion in an under­stand­able con­text in which one or more lay­ers of mean­ing become clear. Exhi­bi­tions where the mean­ing can be read in a direct way from the object, as an aes­thetic value, are called object-oriented exhi­bi­tions. Here objects con­sti­tute the cen­tral ele­ment and are inter­preted25. Exhi­bi­tions where it is cho­sen to present other lay­ers of mean­ing such as the his­tor­i­cal or sym­bolic, place con­text as the cen­tral ele­ment. Here the objects are lit­er­ally the data car­ri­ers, or by way of anal­ogy with the stage: actors in the story. How­ever, the two types are not mutu­ally exclu­sive. Rather, there is a slid­ing scale with rarely occur­ring extremes at both ends. See also the dia­gram ‘Object– and information-orientated exhibitions’.

Object- and information-orientated exhibitions

Object– and information-orientated exhibitions

On the far left there is no trans­fer of infor­ma­tion, only objects on dis­play. The objects are dis­played with­out any expla­na­tion or arrange­ment. In fact, this is a dis­play rather than an exhi­bi­tion. The clos­est to this form are win­dow dis­plays, although even here with object arrange­ment and/or short texts with prod­uct descrip­tion and price there is usu­ally an ele­men­tary level of infor­ma­tion trans­fer. In the cul­tural field, one finds object-oriented exhi­bi­tions mainly in art muse­ums and in some more tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal and sci­ence muse­ums. In fact, the exhi­bi­tion maker focuses, often implic­itly, on an aes­thetic and/or mainly sci­en­tific approach to the exhib­ited mate­r­ial, with­out pay­ing atten­tion to con­vey­ing back­ground infor­ma­tion on the sub­ject which would ben­e­fit an unini­ti­ated audi­ence. This infor­ma­tion is often pro­vided else­where, for exam­ple in a cat­a­logue or on a web site.

On the extreme right of the dia­gram the trans­fer of infor­ma­tion is the cen­tral ele­ment. There are hardly any objects on dis­play or, if there are, they are sub­or­di­nate to the story. The infor­ma­tion con­tent is often con­veyed extrav­a­gantly, with inter­ac­tive pre­sen­ta­tions that are expe­ri­ence– and/or gaming-oriented, sup­ple­mented with mul­ti­me­dia and audio-visual pro­grams. Well-known inter­me­di­ate forms are:

  • objects arranged around a theme (for exam­ple, a sign say­ing Picasso at the entrance to the exhi­bi­tion room, fol­lowed by a num­ber of his paint­ings with­out fur­ther explanations).
  • dis­play of objects only, with small signs at the side giv­ing object information.
  • exhi­bi­tions of insti­tu­tions which work from both their col­lec­tion as well a story, such as his­tor­i­cal, nat­ural his­tory, eth­no­log­i­cal and tech­ni­cal muse­ums. To con­vey the story the exhi­bi­tion maker uses not only objects but also all kinds of tech­ni­cal aids avail­able for exhi­bi­tion design such as: 2 — and 3-dimensional design, light­ing, context-and experience-oriented pre­sen­ta­tions, smells, sounds, texts and audio-visual, mul­ti­me­dia and inter­ac­tive media. About 40% of the cen­tre line in the above dia­gram could be called information-oriented exhibitions.

Trade-show stands can be placed in this dia­gram, to the right of the mid­dle. With the express inten­tion of pro­mot­ing prod­ucts — ser­vices are also seen as prod­ucts here — these prod­ucts are dis­played as objects. Often here the direct sales of the prod­ucts or ser­vices are less impor­tant. Usu­ally stands form part of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy of a com­pany, which only indi­rectly want to con­tribute to increas­ing sales with the par­tic­i­pa­tion in a trade show. Besides estab­lish­ing con­tacts with poten­tial new cus­tomers and the rein­force­ment of ties with exist­ing ones, often image-building and brand­ing are the main aims of the stand. The staff on the stand play an essen­tial role in this com­mu­ni­ca­tion process.

The scale in the illus­tra­tion above con­tains no value judge­ments, that is to say that a strong object-oriented exhi­bi­tion would be a worse exhi­bi­tion than an information-oriented one. The main point here is that a delib­er­ate choice is being made, depend­ing on the aims and tar­get groups the exhi­bi­tion has to achieve.

Dis­ci­plines involved

The intro­duc­tion to project management[(introduction PM)] indi­cates that organ­is­ing an exhi­bi­tion is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary activ­ity. The dia­gram Dis­ci­plines in exhi­bi­tions shows which dis­ci­plines play a role and what their mean­ing and posi­tion is in the organ­i­sa­tional process.

Disciplines in Exhibitions

Dis­ci­plines in Exhibitions

The Core disciplines

The ini­tia­tive to organ­ise an exhi­bi­tion can arise from many motives. Some­times it can arise from a new col­lec­tion or some­times from an idea. Ide­ally the themes will flow from the museum’s gen­eral pol­icy. Regard­less of whether a theme is sought to fit a col­lec­tion or a col­lec­tion to fit a theme, research needs to be car­ried out with respect to the con­tent of the theme/collection. The infor­ma­tion obtained from the research can be con­veyed in var­i­ous ways. For exam­ple, the objects can be placed on a shelf or in a dis­play case and the cura­tor can walk past them accom­pa­nied by the vis­i­tors whilst telling the story; that is to say, the clas­sic guided tour. Apart from other draw­backs, this often takes far too much time and cer­tainly for large num­bers of vis­i­tors is soon impos­si­ble. The cura­tor may then put up texts near the dis­played objects to replace his own nar­ra­tive. How­ever, this method also has a num­ber of draw­backs, for example:

  • A great effort is required of the vis­i­tor to read this infor­ma­tion, which is some­times in con­sid­er­able quan­ti­ties, in a stand­ing posi­tion,. Many vis­i­tors can indeed be put off by this and will only read text here and there. Under such cir­cum­stances, infor­ma­tion trans­fer is only partial.
  • If there is a large amount of text, this may com­pete with the exhib­ited mate­r­ial. The objects may unin­ten­tion­ally be reduced to the posi­tion of illus­tra­tions in a book.

In order to get the story and the objects to inter­re­late with each other, other meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion must be looked at. The dis­ci­plines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion26 and design[see basic con­cepts in 3 B 3] come to the assis­tance of the exhi­bi­tion maker here. These two dis­ci­plines should not be sep­a­rated from each in this con­text. These skills are applied and inte­grated within the process of mak­ing exhi­bi­tions. In other words, the design should aim to present the objects/story in such a way that the infor­ma­tion is con­veyed as much as pos­si­ble by visual means. This could be called com­mu­nica­tive design. Of course, the dis­ci­plines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and design also have their own sig­nif­i­cance within the exhi­bi­tion process. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, for exam­ple, plays a part in iden­ti­fy­ing and esti­mat­ing the tar­get group, the set­ting of the objec­tives and trans­lat­ing the exhibition’s the­matic infor­ma­tion in an in a tech­ni­cal way to the tar­get group. Design plays an indi­vid­ual role in the fields of ergonom­ics, typog­ra­phy and chro­mat­ics etc.

The aca­d­e­mic, com­mu­nica­tive and design dis­ci­plines that are shown on the top right square in the dia­gram Dis­ci­plines form the core dis­ci­plines in the exhi­bi­tion process. They deter­mine the theme and ensure that it is adapted to fit the tar­get group. In other words, the exhi­bi­tion is made up by the com­mu­nica­tive design of the content.

Con­di­tional disciplines

Besides the core dis­ci­plines a num­ber of other dis­ci­plines play an impor­tant role in the cre­ation of an exhi­bi­tion. You might say they form a con­di­tional frame­work within which the core dis­ci­plines have to oper­ate. These are:


This dis­ci­pline plays an impor­tant, if not cru­cial role, espe­cially in her­itage exhi­bi­tions. After all, the preser­va­tion of her­itage takes prece­dence over the pre­sen­ta­tion of the exhi­bi­tion. One could speak of “Preser­va­tion REQUIREMENTS ver­sus pre­sen­ta­tion WISHES”. The dis­ci­pline of con­ser­va­tion is con­cerned with both the spa­tial aspects of pre­serv­ing objects (pre­ven­tive con­ser­va­tion) and by main­tain­ing the objects them­selves (active conservation).

Tech­ni­cal professions

These are pro­fes­sions such as exhi­bi­tion con­struc­tion, the mak­ing of audio-visual and mul­ti­me­dia pro­grammes, com­puter pro­gram­ming, pho­tog­ra­phy, etc. These dis­ci­plines are in the most lit­eral sense a pre-requisite. After all, all kinds of designs are con­ceiv­able, but if they are not tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble then they can­not be imple­mented. It should be noted that as far as tech­nol­ogy is con­cerned at the moment almost any­thing can be made, albeit often at very high cost. Bud­getary con­sid­er­a­tions there­fore play an impor­tant role in what is fea­si­ble and viable.

Social Sci­ences

These are impor­tant for var­i­ous types of audi­ence research:

  • Mar­ket­ing research: This research may pre­cede the start of an exhi­bi­tion project. This kind of research helps to deter­mine what kind of exhi­bi­tions there is a need for in the mar­ket and /or whether trade show par­tic­i­pa­tion is a suit­able medium.
  • Front-end research: This kind of research can start after the project has been launched and once the tar­get group has been estab­lished. Front-end research aims to col­late more infor­ma­tion on the tar­get group and their wishes regard­ing the theme/content so that it can be matched opti­mally with the tar­get group.
  • For­ma­tive research: This is research that can be used dur­ing the devel­op­ment of an exhi­bi­tion. It aims to test parts of the exhi­bi­tion in the form of pro­to­types with the tar­get group before it is actu­ally put into production.
  • Sum­ma­tive research: This type of research is per­formed dur­ing the open­ing of the exhi­bi­tion. It has the goal, among other objec­tives, of inves­ti­gat­ing whether the exhi­bi­tion actu­ally meets its goals, whether the con­tent comes over ade­quately and whether the tar­get groups are reached.
  • Pub­lic rela­tions: This dis­ci­pline is respon­si­ble for the pro­mo­tion of the exhibition.

Steer­ing Discipline

Finally, there is the dis­ci­pline of steer­ing in the form of Project Man­age­ment. This dis­ci­pline ensures that the activ­i­ties of the other dis­ci­plines are coor­di­nated and that the final prod­uct is achieved within the pre­scribed para­me­ters of money, time and qual­ity. This dis­ci­pline also man­ages and mon­i­tors the organ­i­sa­tion of infor­ma­tion within the project. See chapter[Introduction project man­age­ment (HFD PG] for fur­ther infor­ma­tion on project management.


All these dis­ci­plines cor­re­spond with func­tions. Within a museum con­text, the fol­low­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion can often be found:

  • the­matic research: the cura­tor (some­times a guest curator)
  • com­mu­ni­ca­tion: an employee from the pre­sen­ta­tion depart­ment and/or education
  • design: a designer (usu­ally hired externally)
  • con­ser­va­tion: some­times a sep­a­rate col­lec­tions man­ager, oth­er­wise the curator
  • tech­ni­cal issues: tech­ni­cal staff
  • pub­lic rela­tions: in larger insti­tu­tions a sep­a­rate employee or some­one from mar­ket­ing or com­mu­ni­ca­tion depart­ment, oth­er­wise an edu­ca­tional employee
  • audi­ence research: often exter­nal, some­times an employee of the pre­sen­ta­tion depart­ment and/or edu­ca­tion and/or marketing
  • project man­age­ment: some­times a sep­a­rate project leader or coor­di­na­tor, often a cura­tor or an educator

It is clear from the above that organ­is­ing an exhi­bi­tion involves team­work. It is not always nec­es­sary to include a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of every dis­ci­pline in the project team. Gen­er­ally a team will con­sist of a cura­tor, an employee from the pre­sen­ta­tion and/or edu­ca­tion depart­ment and a designer, pos­si­bly sup­ple­mented by a sep­a­rate project leader. The other dis­ci­plines are con­sulted where nec­es­sary through­out the project.

How such a team is put together depends on things like:

  • The capa­bil­i­ties of the staff in the insti­tu­tion: In small muse­ums there is often one per­son who car­ries out all of the tasks, gen­er­ally sup­ported by vol­un­teers. In a medium-size museum there will often be a cura­tor on the staff, with a small tech­ni­cal team and some­times an edu­ca­tion offi­cer. They dis­trib­ute the tasks amongst them­selves. Only large muse­ums have spe­cialised staff for each discipline.
  • The organ­i­sa­tion and cul­ture within the museum: In many muse­ums it is tra­di­tion­ally the curator’s duty to take charge of the entire organ­i­sa­tion process.
  • Bud­getary resources: Here it con­cerns the finan­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties of hir­ing an expert in any of the dis­ci­plines men­tioned e.g. a designer.

In the com­mer­cial world, exhi­bi­tions are gen­er­ally organ­ised by a spe­cialised com­pany on behalf of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment of an organ­i­sa­tion. This may be a design agency or an exhi­bi­tion con­struc­tion com­pany with a design depart­ment. Here too, team­work is impor­tant. In addi­tion to the client who typ­i­cally pro­vides the con­tent, the team is made up of a designer, mostly inter­nal if it con­cerns an exhi­bi­tion con­trac­tor, and a project leader, usu­ally from the con­struc­tion com­pany. They also man­age the tech­ni­cal staff from the con­struc­tion firm. With regards to the con­tent of com­mer­cial exhi­bi­tions, it should be noted that trade-fair stands are in gen­eral more super­fi­cial and not of a sci­en­tific nature. Larger stand con­struc­tion com­pa­nies often also use an account man­ager who is deployed in, besides strength­en­ing the project, tak­ing care of the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship. The com­mu­nica­tive dis­ci­pline is usu­ally incor­po­rated into the work of the designer. If audi­ence research is required, this is gen­er­ally car­ried out by an exter­nal. Pub­lic rela­tions are in this light, a spe­cial­ity of those involved in the devel­op­ment of the stand on behalf of the client. The dis­ci­pline of con­ser­va­tion usu­ally plays no part in the stand construction.

  1. (Hjorth, J., EXHIBITIONS ! The nature of exhi­bi­tions. What are they and could they be bet­ter? The Swedish trav­el­ling exhi­bi­tions expe­ri­ence; the­sis for the Licen­ti­ate Degree. p. 30ff.)
  2. Since exhi­bi­tions take place out­doors (e.g. sculp­ture parks) as well as indoors, the con­cept of the built envi­ron­ment is meant in a broad sense. This is all about spa­tial­ity, under­stood as both indoor and out­door spaces that have a clear demar­ca­tion. Inci­den­tally, these demar­ca­tions or bound­aries are not always vis­i­ble. For exam­ple, open-air muse­ums or his­tor­i­cal parks are by their nature and appear­ance recog­nis­able as a coher­ent whole for the vis­i­tor, but are not mea­sur­able. The same goes for large build­ings such at the Lou­vre.)
  3. Lorenc, J., et al., What is Exhi­bi­tion Design, pp 6–9)
  4. See, for exam­ple, the con­tri­bu­tion of Erik Hoe­ber­gen to the chap­ter on stand con­struc­tion in Ten­toon­stellingsvor­mgev­ing (Exhi­bi­tion Design) in which he describes the design bureau Totems Com­mu­ni­ca­tion as spe­cial­is­ing in “… analy­sis, con­cept, design and man­age­ment of 3D com­mu­ni­ca­tion projects” (Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhi­bi­tion Design (Eind­hoven 2002), p. 144. See also the con­tri­bu­tion of Louk de Sévaux in the same pub­li­ca­tion which empha­sises this aspect of spa­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tion Retail: Ruimtelijke com­mu­ni­catie (Retail: Spa­tial Com­mu­ni­ca­tion). (Ibid, 155))
  5. Lord, B., Dex­ter Lord, G. (ed.) The Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions (Wal­nut Creek 2002). pp. 18–19
  6. The Frans Hals Prize for exhi­bi­tion design was awarded sev­eral times in the late 1980s by the Frans Hals Museum to design­ers of inno­v­a­tive exhi­bi­tions)
  7. Janssen, D., et al. (eds.) Exhi­bi­tion Design (Eind­hoven 2002), p.5.
  8. Koss­mann H, Jong de, M, Engag­ing Spaces, Exhi­bi­tion Design Explored, (Ams­ter­dam 2010) p.7.
  9. Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhi­bi­tion Design (Eind­hoven 2002), p. 5.
  10. Lorenc, J., et al, What is exhi­bi­tion design, pp.6–9
  11. Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhi­bi­tion Design (Eind­hoven 2002), p.5.
  12. See note 2 on the built envi­ron­ment
  13. H. Fer­ree ed, Groot Prak­tijk­boek voor effec­tieve com­mu­ni­catie, (Deven­ter / Antwerp n.d.) p.13–15
  14. Lord also points out that the inher­ent value of museum exhi­bi­tions is largely moti­vated by the fact that things to see here are regarded as authen­tic by the vis­i­tor. He places it in the con­text of the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of soci­ety, where, by show­ing authen­tic objects, muse­ums and mon­u­ments offer a new kind of sci­en­tific reli­a­bil­ity and pro­vide log­i­cal mean­ing. He speaks in this con­text of a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence (Lord, B., Dex­ter Lord, G. (ed.) The Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions (Wal­nut Creek 2002). P.16).
  15. See also Men­sch van, P, Year­book Dutch Open Air 1999 (Nijmegen / Arn­hem 1999)
  16. Inci­den­tally, var­i­ous tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments such as the rise of holo­grams and 3-D film tech­niques are mak­ing it eas­ier to explain more than two rela­tion­ships within an image for other media.
  17. Lord, B., Dex­ter Lord, G. (ed.) The Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions (Wal­nut Creek 2002). pag.17–18
  18. Although trade-show stands are used here in a com­mer­cial sense, this is cer­tainly not always the case. Janssen points out that char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions, organ­i­sa­tions and pub­lic author­i­ties present them­selves at trade shows through a stand, such as at NOT, the Dutch annual edu­ca­tion fair. (Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhi­bi­tion Design, page 136.
  19. Lord also dis­tin­guishes between museum exhi­bi­tions and trade fair stands in the Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions. He points to the sim­i­lar­i­ties that both objects and audio-visual images as well as inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ences show, but notes an impor­tant dif­fer­ence that muse­ums do not try to pro­mote a prod­uct or ser­vice. To muse­ums, edu­ca­tion /entertainment is a more cen­tral objec­tive with the aim of cre­at­ing new under­stand­ing (trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence) (Lord, B., Dex­ter Lord, G. (ed.) The Man­ual of Museum Exhi­bi­tions (Wal­nut Creek 2002). p. 15–19).
  20. Museum Aktuell 2003 (92): 3980–3985)
  21. Annual Report 2009 Mar­itime Museum Rot­ter­dam
  22. Annual Report 2009 Mar­itime Museum Rot­ter­dam
  23. Van Men­sch, P, Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Exhi­bi­tions In: Museum Aktuell 2003 (92): 3980–3985, page 6, 7
  24. Block­buster is a term from the film world used to indi­cate a film with big stars in the lead roles that is expected to yield a con­sid­er­able amount at the box-office. The word block­buster dates from the period of the Hol­ly­wood Stu­dio Sys­tem (1917–1947) that was char­ac­terised by a car­tel of the eight major stu­dios or ‘Majors’ (Loews-MGM, Para­mount Pub­lix, Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion, Warner Bros., RKO Pic­tures, Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures, Colum­bia Pic­tures and United Artists). The eight stu­dios were ver­ti­cally inte­grated, either in pos­ses­sion of not just the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ties, but also of their own cin­ema chains. In this period, films were made and leased under a sys­tem of zon­ing and block book­ing. Due to the ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion, cin­e­mas had exclu­sive rights to film screen­ings (zon­ing) within geo­graph­i­cally divided ter­ri­to­ries. The term block­book­ings meant that cin­e­mas could only buy films in manda­tory blocks of suc­cess­ful and less suc­cess­ful films which had to be con­sec­u­tively screened. The block­buster is a film which through its suc­cess stood out against the rest of the films in the block (the block ‘breaker’) and there­fore kept run­ning for a longer period. This limit deter­min­ing the finan­cial suc­cess of a film was grad­u­ally increased, as more and more films were able to reach that limit. They used to keep it at $100 mil­lion but since 2000 a block­buster wor­thy of the name had to earn more than $400 mil­lion. Besides exact amounts block­busters are also spo­ken about when the prof­its of a film greatly sur­pass its costs. (Wikipedia 23-3-2011)
  25. With regards to inter­pre­ta­tion, this means not only an oral or a writ­ten (exhi­bi­tion text) expla­na­tion, but also the use of exhi­bi­tion lan­guage (see 3 B 1)
  26. The term com­mu­ni­ca­tion is used in var­i­ous mean­ings. Often it is the pro­mo­tion of a prod­uct that is taken care of by the com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment of an insti­tu­tion. In this con­text, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is broadly under­stood in the sense expressed in the def­i­n­i­tion of Fer­ree. In this view, edu­ca­tion is a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is specif­i­cally focused on learning-orientated com­mu­ni­ca­tion processes.