Museum Exhibit Design 101: Keep it Simple, Stupid!

A few weeks ago my supervisor requested that I brainstorm some ideas for commemorating the National Park Service’s 99th birthday on August 25. The goal of this project–whatever form it might take–was to raise awareness of the agency’s ongoing Find Your Park campaign and spark enthusiasm about the Park Service’s past, present, and future as it approaches 100 years old.

I decided that creating a small, temporary museum exhibit in our Visitor’s Center could be an effective way of grabbing our visitors’ attention. I envisioned the exhibit playing out in three different phases: one focused on the origins of the National Park Service, one focused on the creation and restoration of our park (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) and one area dedicated to visitor feedback through an open-ended question and comment cards. With helpful input from my friend and colleague David Newmann we made the exhibit a reality. Although we don’t have exhibit design backgrounds and neither one of us ever created a museum exhibit from scratch before, we created what I think is a pretty neat display. I also learned an important lesson about keeping things simple when creating museum exhibits, especially if you’re looking to solicit feedback from visitors.

ULSG Exhibit 4

In the visitor feedback section of the exhibit I wanted visitors to reflect on their past experiences at National Parks and, by extension, use their memories and those of other commentors to think about their next adventure at a park. David came up with a great question for addressing this challenge: “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?”

We printed out small comment cards with the Find Your Park logo on them and wrote a one paragraph description explaining why we think National Parks are important. We put David’s question at the bottom of the page with this one paragraph description. It looked like this:

ULSG Exhibit 1

We noticed after a few days, however, that not a single visitor had taken the time to write a comment. Were people not interested in talking about National Parks or leaving comments at the exhibit?

It turns out that poor design on our part was wholly to blame for the lack of visitor feedback. David came up with a great idea to remedy this problem: simplify the design and give our question a prominent place within the exhibit. Make the question so big that you couldn’t avoid it.

ULSG Exhibit 2

Almost instantly after putting this sign up, we started getting feedback.

ULSG Exhibit 3

While it’s important to have an area on this table to explain why National Parks are important, we inhibited visitor interaction by writing our question in too small a font and burying it underneath a substantial body of text. Not everyone wants or needs to read such an explanation to understand what’s going on here. The question “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?” easily conveys what we want visitors to do. Putting the question front and center while leaving our explanation on the left side of the table allows for more visitor comments while also letting visitors who want to read further do so at their convenience.

So…keep it simple when designing museum exhibits!